State releases educators’ ethics code

By Chris Kieffer / NEMS Daily Journal

A proposed new code of ethics for educators focuses on cracking down on romantic relationships between Mississippi’s teachers and students.
The Mississippi Department of Education released a draft of the Mississippi Code of Ethics and Standards of Conduct on Thursday. The state Board of Education could vote to adopt it at its meeting next month.
Among other recommendations, the code would make it easier for the MDE to revoke the licenses of teachers who have improper relationships with students.
It also would require school districts to report all such behavior to the MDE.
“It is designed to serve as a deterrent to those employees who may have improper relationships with students, and it is designed to stop conduct at early stages,” said Jim Keith, a consulting attorney for more than 100 districts in the state. Keith was on the task force that helped design the new code.
Currently, teachers would have to be convicted or terminated for their license to be revoked.
If they had harassed a student or sent inappropriate text messages but hadn’t had sexual intercourse, they may have left a district before they had been terminated. Those teachers may then have been able to go to another district that was unaware of their conduct.
The new code aims to eliminate that loophole and increase what is reported to the MDE.
“The most important thing, in my book, is eliminating things that could harm boys and girls,” said state board member Claude Hartley.
The code prohibits, among other things, such acts as sexual jokes and remarks, electronic communication, invitation to social networking, remarks about a student’s body, sexual assault and consensual sex.
“We want the public to understand we’re not going to tolerate this,” Keith said.
The code would be the first statewide ethics code for Mississippi educators. Mississippi is currently the only state in the South without such a code.
“I think it is a huge step in the right direction,” said Tupelo Superintendent Randy Shaver. “Educators are professionals, and most other professions have a strict code of ethics that they expect professionals to abide by.”
The code was developed by a 22-member task force that has met over the last six months. They used codes from other states as guides.
Keith said that momentum for the new code built as concern grew about an increasing number of improper relationships between teachers and students. New technologies like Facebook and text messages that make it easier for teachers to communicate with students also needed to be addressed.
Deputy State Superintendent Daphne Buckley said the MDE is still determining how the new code will be implemented. Keith said teachers may need to sign the code at the beginning of the year before signing their contracts.
“It is a general guide for the highest professional behavior, and it has consequences for unethical behavior,” Buckley said.
The code covers 10 standards, including professional conduct; trustworthiness; alcohol, drug and tobacco use and possession and use of public funds.
“It is very comprehensive, and I think it is good that professional educators have standards to base their work on,” said Nettleton Schools Superintendent Russell Taylor.
New Albany Superintendent Charles Garrett said the code is important because it brings education in line with other professions; such as medicine, engineering and law; that also have codes of ethics.
“If you want consistency from school district to school district, you need some sort of state guidance, and I think the state board is trying to provide that guidance,” he said.
The code also prohibits such acts as harassment of colleagues, inappropriate language on school grounds or at any school-related activity, “using coercive means or promise of special treatment in order to influence professional decisions of colleagues” and being on school campus or at a school-related activity while using alcohol or tobacco.
“It looks like a lot of practical common-sense behaviors you would hope your teachers exhibit on a daily basis with young people,” said Amory Schools Superintendent Gearl Loden.

Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or chris.kieffer@journalinc.com.