Think twice when disciplining teachers over ‘minor’ transgressions, Florida hearing officer warns

An administrative law judge overturns the Broward school district’s attempt to suspend a teacher for a classroom comment.
School districts should think long and hard about disciplining teachers over student complaints over 'small offenses,' to avoid having classrooms 'become arid environments' that teachers cannot control, a state hearing officer writes. (Washington Post)
School districts should think long and hard about disciplining teachers over student complaints over 'small offenses,' to avoid having classrooms 'become arid environments' that teachers cannot control, a state hearing officer writes. (Washington Post)
Published Feb. 10, 2020

On its face, this is a simple story about a veteran Broward County teacher with a history of making inappropriate comments to students, and the district’s attempt to suspend her.

What makes it more interesting, though, is the reaction of the state hearing officer assigned the case after the teacher appealed her punishment.

The hearing officer decided to use the case to point out that it’s become too easy for students to wrest control of a classroom away from a teacher with their accusations and protestations, while downplaying the comments as “bonehead” but not malicious.

“The undersigned recommends ... that the district think long and hard about whether to base the suspension or termination of a teacher on a minor, unintentional transgression such as this,” wrote administrative law judge John G. Van Laningham. “Doing so would signal that small offenses justify high outrage and serious consequences, thereby encouraging students to report on their teachers for ever more trivial infractions.”

Here’s what happened, as detailed in the district’s complaint and the judge’s order, published just more than a week ago. Decide for yourselves whether the district or the judge has the right approach.

Brenda J. Fischer has been an art teacher in Broward County since 1992. By the district’s account, she had been reprimanded and disciplined a handful of times in the past after yelling at students and making inappropriate comments. She was once suspended for showing nude images to her photography class.

On this particular instance, Fischer had a student, referred to as M.G., who arrived late to class. Fischer told the student to stop operating on “Latin time,” and to follow “American time” because they were in the United States. She allegedly made similar statements about “Jewish time.”

The district detailed that Fischer had made related comments before. And it added that other students complained that the teacher made derogatory statements about students who do not speak English in class and had yelled at and belittled Hispanic students.

The district accused her of misconduct, and sought to suspend her for five days without pay.

In his recommended order, Van Laningham did not disagree that the teacher’s comments were insensitive and she should have known it — particularly in 2019, when “a culture of victimhood had arisen, which encouraged people to seek redress even for unintentional, de minimis offenses.”

He noted, though, that Fischer did not appear to have ill intent — she said she was making a joke — and that she apologized several times. Beyond that, he continued, the student appeared in statements to have been more offended at being classified as Latino than at the statement itself. (The student apparently had ancestry from Spain, not Latin America.)

“The undersigned points this out, not to criticize or discredit M.G., but to illustrate that it is easy for a person innocently to make a statement which can be interpreted by another as offensive, particularly if the listener is primed to take offense,” the judge wrote.

The student “pounced” on the incident, Van Laningham wrote, and “the district’s disciplinary machine, its fuel having been ignited by the spark of these accusations of prejudice, went to work, leading eventually to this hearing.”

The rest of the investigation led to the proposed suspension. And the judge suggested the district was in the wrong for taking it to that extreme. The comment was a “faux pas,” he wrote, and not meant to be derogatory. Beyond that, he continued, it did not rise to the level of misconduct that should lead to suspension or dismissal.

Then came that warning to watch what you ask for.

Empowering students to file complaints for ever more “trivial infractions” could cause classrooms to become “arid environments presided over by cautious teachers who interact warily with their students, whose power as potential accusers, prudence would counsel, should remain constantly in the back of one’s mind," Van Laningham wrote. "The undersigned doubts that such fraught teacher-student relationships, within an atmosphere of distrust no less, would be conducive to learning.”

He recommended the Broward School Board exonerate Fischer and repay her for any lost wages.