Third Department Applies Most Stringent Standards to Protect Students From Teachers’ Harm

Courts continue to find it important that schools fulfill their non-delegable duty of protecting their students. Recently, the Appellate Division, Third Department, in Matter of Binghamton City School District v. Peacock, Docket No. 502329, held that public policy supports a no-leniency standard for teachers that instill harm on their students. The court clearly delivered this message when it held that a two-year suspension for a teacher who engaged in a grossly inappropriate relationship with a sixteen year old student was too lenient.

The case centers on a teacher where there is evidence that he helped the student purchase a cell phone and spoke to her over 1300 times on the phone, and there is also an issue as to whether the relationship turned sexual. The teacher was warned at least three times by the school to desist his inappropriate conduct, but the teacher, Mr. Peacock, ignored the same and as a result disciplinary proceedings were brought against him.

Despite the suggestion by a Hearing Officer of a lower penalty, the Court found that even the penalty of a two-year suspension without pay was insufficient. The Court was concerned that a return by said teacher at any time to the school could pose a serious threat to the welfare of the students.

The court determined that the teacher needs counseling and must recognize the harm he caused, writing: “Until respondent acknowledges the harm he has caused and undertakes counseling or other remedial action, no period of suspension could safeguard petitioners’ students upon his return to classroom teaching.”

Interestingly, this was the second time that the Third Department reviewed this matter and held that the Hearing Officer’s recommendation was too lenient. In a prior decision (33 AD3d 1074 [2006], appeal dismissed 8 NY3d 840 [2007]), the Court affirmed the earlier decision of the Supreme Court vacating a one-year suspension a Hearing Officer imposed pursuant to Education Law 3020-a. The Court earlier held that the one-year suspension of respondent, a tenured teacher, for his grossly inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old female high school student violated a strong public policy.

Notably, this Court has recently made a similar type of decision in a school setting. For instance, in 2005, the court held that a former dean of students (who was responsible for enforcing a no-drug policy in his school) who was guilty of possessing drugs, could not ever return to his position as dean even if he successfully completed treatment. This decision was seen as the best way to ensure protection to the students at his school.

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