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Legislators weigh nuances of anonymous reporting by teachers, administrators

PIERRE, S.D. — Teachers turning on other teachers; administrators forced to report ‘alleged’ ethics violations against their colleagues.

It’s a snapshot of an environment that continues to turn South Dakota’s education system into a void of suspicion and allegations, based on arbitrary reports from others within the same field.

What began with Governor Kristi Noem’s and the Department of Education’s controversial whistleblower hotline for students, faculty, parents, and taxpayers to report concerns at institutions of higher education in South Dakota is now reaching into K-12 education in the state.

A Legislature’s Rules Review Committee meeting this week in Pierre pushed back, rejecting proposed requirements that would make South Dakota school teachers and school administrators report knowledge of alleged ethics violations by other teachers and administrators.

Republican Senator Jean Hunhoff is the Legislature’s Rules Review Committee chair. She is currently the Legislature’s senior-most member.  Initially voting for approval were Republican Rep. Jon Hansen, Republican Sen. Jim Mehlhaff and Hunhoff. Voting against the proposals were Democratic Sen. Red Dawn Foster, Democratic Rep. Erin Healy and Republican Rep. Roger DeGroot, a retired school administrator.

According to KELO News, State Education Secretary Joe Graves made the pitch supporting the teacher-reporting package. He said the department has received “covertly” copies of non-disclosure agreements between school districts and teachers that the teacher who had allegedly committed some violation was allowed to leave in exchange for a neutral recommendation.

“We can at least shorten the careers of people who do not have the best interests of children at heart and thereby save others from the unfortunate consequences of their behavior,” said Graves.

But South Dakota Education Association lobbyist Jeremiah Murphy pointed to Noem’s whistleblower hotline, observing,  “Now you can anonymously report somebody — and quite honestly, I just imagine the trouble. Imagine the trouble that would ensue if I can anonymously report somebody.”

The state’s education department refers whistleblower reports of alleged ethics violations to the state Professional Teachers Practices and Standards Commission or the state Professional Administrators Practices and Standards Commission. The governor appoints all members of both groups.

KELO reported that one of the teachers who is a past member of the Practices and Standards Commission, told the committee that the rule changes shouldn’t be made.

“Appropriate reporting of misconduct, that has to happen,” said Paula McMahan, a middle school teacher for the Elk Point-Jefferson school district. “I am in agreement with that. But inappropriate reporting or misreporting only creates a bigger gap between our students, our administrators, our stakeholders of all kinds.”

In comments during the meeting reported by KELO, Rep. DeGroot said he’d served as a school administrator for 40 years and understands there are nuances to school law and how school systems work. He suggested that the proposed requirement would break a school’s chain of command. Replied Secretary Graves, who was a long-time superintendent for the Mitchell school district, “I can’t imagine a district trying to argue the chain of command for a report to the ethics commission, and I cannot believe that would be enforceable.”

DeGroot responded, “There’s just not enough regulations in what you’re doing as far as guidelines in what you’re doing.” He asked whether an unsubstantiated tip received by the department would go in someone’s permanent file. “That could ruin somebody’s future, and that’s a false report. You were in education a long time, Doctor Graves, teachers can be friends one day and the next day they’re not friends. And they can be petty…It happens.”

Sen. Foster took the opposite side. “In the most egregious cases, absolutely it needs to be reported,” she said. “But I think there is a current process and I don’t know if in these situations this proposed rule change would address those. If people aren’t referring at the lowest level, I don’t know it’s going to change it at the highest level. And I support local control. There’s still a lot of unanswered questions of how this would work, what the true impacts will be.

 

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