Where District Charged Teacher With Immorality Or Unprofessional Conduct, Applicable Standard Is Whether The Person Is ‘Fit To Teach’ And Triggers Analysis Of Morrison Factors

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Aug 31, 2020

Jurupa Unified School District employed Patricia Crawford as a guidance counselor at Rubidoux High School. In February 2017, School students protested in support of A Day Without Immigrants a nationwide boycott that sought to illustrate the economic impact of immigrants in the United States and to protest President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. A quarter of the School’s students boycotted attending school in support of the protest.

During the protest, Crawford sent an email to a colleague expressing disapproval of the protesting students. Later that day, another teacher made a public Facebook post blaming immigrants for overcrowding in the public school system and stating the day was better without the protesting students. Crawford commented on the post, “Cafeteria was much cleaner after lunch, lunch, itself, went quicker, less traffic on the roads, and no discipline issues today. More, please.” Several other teachers made similar comments about how the protesting students’ absence had positive effects, such as smaller classes, fewer “troublemakers,” increasing a class’s “cumulative GPA,” and making instruction easier. Multiple students commented on the post to express their disappointment and disagreement with the teachers. Crawford responded to some of the students and ultimately told them to “Get over yourselves.”

The Facebook post “went viral” on social media and gained national attention. The District put all the teachers involved in the Facebook post on administrative leave on the same day.

In the following days, the District received over 250 e-mail complaints about the Facebook post and comment thread, including 50 complaints that specifically referenced Crawford’s comments. The School was vandalized with graffiti, and about 350 students staged a “walk-out” and demonstration to protest the post and the comments. At its next meeting, the District’s Board took public comment about the Facebook post, during which eleven people specifically referred to Crawford. Additionally, numerous local and national media outlets contacted the District for comment about the incident.

In May 2017, the District informed Crawford it intended to dismiss her for “immoral conduct” and “evident unfitness for service” pursuant to Education Code section 44932, subdivision (a)(1) and (6).

Crawford appealed the District’s decision to the Commission on Professional Competence. The Commission conducted a hearing and found Crawford’s comments negatively impacted students, the school, the district and the community. The Commission concluded Crawford’s conduct qualified as immoral conduct, rendered her “evidently unfit to serve,” and justified her dismissal.

Crawford challenged the Commission’s decision by requesting a trial court review the Commission’s decision, a special petition known as a writ of mandate. The trial court denied the petition and found that the weight of the evidence supported the Commission’s finding that Crawford engaged in immoral conduct and was evidently unfit to serve. Crawford appealed.

On appeal, the Court of Appeal first found substantial evidence supported the trial court’s finding that the weight of the evidence supported the Commission’s finding that Crawford’s conduct was “immoral.” The Court did not agree with Crawford’s argument that her conduct did not fit into any of the three fixed categories of conduct that constitute “immoral conduct.” A teacher’s conduct is immoral when it negatively affects the school community in a way that demonstrates the teacher is unfit to teach.

The Court of Appeal pointed to Morrison v. State Board of Education (1969) 1 Cal.3d 214, a case in which the California Supreme Court outlined seven factors courts should consider to determine whether unprofessional conduct demonstrated unfitness to teach: (1) the likelihood that the conduct may have adversely affected students or fellow teachers and the degree of such adversity anticipated, (2) the proximity or remoteness in time of the conduct, (3) the type of teaching certificate held by the party involved, (4) the extenuating or aggravating circumstances, if any, surrounding the conduct, (5) the praiseworthiness or blameworthiness of the motives resulting in the conduct, (6) the likelihood of the recurrence of the questioned conduct, and (7) the extent to which disciplinary action may inflict an adverse impact or chilling effect upon the constitutional rights of the teacher involved or other teachers. The Court of Appeal noted that the trial court applied the Morrison factors and the weight of the evidence supported the Commission’s decision.

However, Crawford argued the trial court erred by assessing the Morrison because it failed to find whether she engaged in immoral conduct or was evidently unfit before turning to the Morrison analysis. However, the Court of Appeal held the trial court found the weight of the evidence supported the Commission’s finding before its Morrison analysis.

Crawford also argued that applying the Morrison factors to assess her fitness to teach, and thus whether her conduct was immoral conduct conflated the issues. In her view, the Court of Appeal must make a prima facie finding of immoral conduct before addressing the Morrison factors. She further argued that immoral conduct should be defined as conduct that would be deemed “immoral” in an everyday sense, such as criminal activity and using profanity or racial epithets. The Court of Appeal disagreed.

Next, Crawford claimed that using the Morrison factors to determine whether her conduct was immoral would allow schools to dismiss educators for any statement they make or in response to the public’s response to the employee’s speech. The Court of Appeal stated that Morrison actually ensured that a permanent employee can be dismissed for immoral conduct only if the school showed the employee was unfit to teach. Additionally, the Court of Appeal found that considering the public’s opinion of and response to an employee’s conduct may be appropriate when assessing whether the employee is unfit to teach. Specifically, a teacher may be discharged when her conduct gained sufficient notoriety so as to impair her on-campus relationships. Here, the District dismissed Crawford because of the adverse effect of her comments on her professional reputation, her ability to counsel students effectively, and her relationship with the School generally.

Crawford next argued that the Morrison factors did not apply because Morrison was a case about a teacher’s credential, whereas this case was about Crawford’s dismissal. The Court of Appeal found this distinction immaterial.

The Court of Appeal reviewed each of the seven Morrison factors and found there was substantial evidence to support the trial court’s ultimate finding that Crawford was unfit to teach and, in turn, the trial court’s finding that Crawford engaged in immoral conduct under Education Code section 44932, subdivision (a)(1).

Finally, Crawford argued that, even if her conduct was immoral, her dismissal was an excessive penalty. The Court of Appeal concluded the Commission did not abuse its discretion in upholding the District’s dismissal of Crawford. Because of the Commission’s expertise, its decision as to the appropriate penalty for Crawford’s immoral conduct is entitled to great deference, and the Court of Appeal declined to overturn its decision.

The Court of Appeal therefore affirmed the trial court’s ruling denying Crawford’s petition for writ of mandate.

Crawford v. Comm’n on Prof’l Competence of the Jurupa Unified Sch. Dist. (2020) __ Cal.App.5th __ [2020 WL 4593167].