Sexual grooming of students haunts high school teacher no one will hire.

The internet is a very powerful tool. Inappropriate sexual behavior dooms some careers; possibly permanently.

The Second Circuit recently decided Mudge v. Zugalla, Harder, No. 18-1298-cv (2nd Cir. 2019). New York State’s Department of Education issues licenses to teachers. Good moral character is necessary for all teachers. The internet makes sure that even time does not erase bad behavior towards students.

A physical education teacher was accused of sexually grooming two high school students. 20 years had gone by. But the attorney in the Office of School Personnel Review (“OSPRA”) and a NYSED professional conduct investigator helped prosecute a Part 83 proceeding. The teacher’s conduct raised a reasonable question of his moral character. His teaching license was suspended for 1 year following an administrative panel’s determination.

About a year later, this physical education teacher applied to be a middle school principal at a school located about 40 miles away. He was being considered for the job until an internet search revealed his prior inappropriate grooming of students and suspension.

The former attorney who prosecuted the initial case against the teacher received a call. The caller inquired regarding the prior proceedings. The “OSPRA” attorney decided it was worth looking into whether the teacher had been candid with in his new employment application. The new school had not asked questions which would have required the teacher to disclose what happened in his prior position from which he resigned.

The School Board learned of this teacher’s prior suspension and misconduct. He was denied the assistant principal job but allowed to teach as a substitute. He even became a permanent substitute. But once the teacher he was substituting for extended her leave the Board hired a permanent replacement who was not the formerly suspended teacher.

The teacher’s reputation had been ruined from incidents which occurred decades prior. The teacher sued under Section 1983 alleging procedural due process violations and a stigma-plus claim. He argued that the Department of Education, which became aware that the teacher was attempting to work at a new school, launched what appeared might be an investigation, but never shared its conclusion that no failure to disclose by the physical education teacher occurred and therefore it would not proceed.

The Northern District of New York denied summary judgment. The Second Circuit disagreed. Procedural due process claims are never easy to prove and this teacher was unable to show that those with qualified immunity did anything other than their jobs. Some hiring authorities may have conducted internet searches and superintendents informed School Boards of their own concerns. But even procedural imperfections are not grounds for success in this matter.

This physical education teacher may never be able to teach again. But the court is not convinced that the government denied the physical teacher a meaningful opportunity to use his teaching license. And that the on-line stories about his “sexual grooming” decades earlier should be attributed to either school boards, superintendents, New York’s Department of Education, its investigators, or attorneys. Behavior which is deemed inappropriate, and directly related to one’s profession as this teacher’s behavior certainly is, can potentially, stigmatize any professional’s ability to keep working in such profession. Such is the power of the internet!

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