CONCORD — The state Board of Education has approved the first-ever statewide code of conduct for teachers, which includes a prohibition against any romantic relationship with a student “whether written, verbal or physical” until at least 10 months after graduation or departure.

That provision is included in more than 22 pages of new rules that have been approved by the legislative committee on rules and will now take effect after Thursday’s unanimous vote by the board.

In addition to rules governing contact with current and former students from pre-school to 12th grade, the code addresses accepting certain gifts, altering assessment results and inappropriate use of social media.

“Inappropriate communication shall be determined by considering the intent, timing, subject matter and amount of communication,” according to the new rule.

The code of conduct is based on a code of ethics that was adopted earlier in the year at the direction of the state legislature.

“There was a bill in 2016, HB 1457, that started us down this path,” said Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut. That bill, “Establishing a code of professional ethics for New Hampshire teachers” went to a study committee and in 2017 a new bill was passed that set a deadline of July 1, 2018, for a code of ethics to be in place.”

While the code of ethics deals with broad principles, the code of conduct approved Thursday describes actual behaviors that violate those principles, along with processes for enforcement, investigations and disciplinary proceedings.

The two unions that represent New Hampshire teachers were involved in developing the code of ethics and related code of conduct, but are not that enthusiastic about the outcome.

Doug Ley, president of the American Federation of Teachers affiliate in New Hampshire, said his group does not favor a statewide approach to such an issue.

“We certainly appreciate the ability of AFT-NH to participate in this process, but our preference is for local control and what this does in so many ways is undermine due process and the whole process of termination for just cause,” said Ley. “This is a work-around on those issues on the part of the state.”

The National Education Association affiliate in New Hampshire also participated in the task force that developed the ethics and conduct codes. NEA-NH President Megan Tuttle said the NEA had proposed some changes in the code that were not adopted.

“We believe the changes we suggested brought more clarity to the proposal and avoided unintended consequences, while achieving our shared goals,” she said. “We had hoped that more of them would have been included in the final document. All our suggestions are informed by our experience as educators.”

The organization declined to detail the changes it requested that were not included in the final rules.

Three-year process

The process of developing the ethics and conduct codes has been underway for the past three years, said Edelblut, and is not in response to any one circumstance or incident.

The new rules create a “duty to report” by teachers and school administrators who become aware of violations and establish a process for investigations and disciplinary hearings.

The process could end in reprimand, license suspension or revocation, depending on the seriousness of the offense and other factors, like the “willingness to cooperate during an investigation.”

“This is designed to provide protections for students and for educators as well,” said Edelblut, “because now we have established a key due process for an educator, and if they do certain things, they know the process will be followed.”

He said current disciplinary procedures are inconsistent from district to district and often lacking in transparency.

“This will be helpful for communities, because often when something happens in a school there is a lot of ambiguity. We can’t talk about it because it deals with personnel matters,” he said.

“We’ve created a process where the community can feel comfortable that when something happens, there is a process of adjudication for those who are involved and the community knows what that process will be. It takes away some of the ambiguity and uncertainty.”

Factors to consider

Several factors will be taken into consideration when determining if teachers have engaged in inappropriate communication, according to the code, including:

Whether the communication made was covert in nature;

Whether it could be reasonably interpreted as solicitous, sexually explicit or romantic in nature; and,

Whether it involved discussion of the physical or sexual attractiveness or the sexual activities or fantasies of either the (teacher) or the student.”

The code also deals with prohibitions against discrimination, drug or alcohol possession or intoxication, and misuse of funds.

“We do grasp and appreciate the need,” said Ley. “If you are in a profession you should have a professional code, but in New Hampshire, the process and the system we have used for many years has been one of local control over these issues and many localities already have embedded in teacher handbooks codes of conduct and codes of ethics, so adding this in doesn’t necessarily add anything further.”

The state has seen a number of educator misconduct investigations in recent years. Cases grew from 170 in 2014, to 222, so far this year, according to NH DOE data. Between nine and 16 teacher revocations and suspensions have occurred annually during the past five years.

Full text of the new codes of ethics and conduct for teachers can be found online at unionleader.com

dsolomon@unionleader.com