News Stream

State can deny license for licensee’s failure to report own daughter’s abuse

A state appellate court in Colorado, in a March 7 ruling, upheld a decision by the State of Education to deny a license renewal to a teacher who had failed to report her husband's abuse of their daughter, holding that no nexus was required between her failure to report and her work as a teacher.

(Heotis v. Colorado State Board of Education).

The Board denied the license renewal of teacher Sharman Heotis after Heotis was convicted of a criminal misdemeanor for failing to report to authorities that her husband had sexually abused their daughter. The board based the denial on both Heotis’s conviction and on the grounds that her failure to act was unethical behavior punishable under the state’s Teacher Licensing Act.

Colorado law requires that certain professionals, including public school employees, who have “reasonable cause to know or suspect that a child has been subjected to abuse or neglect” must immediately “report or cause a report to be made of such fact to the county department, the local law enforcement agency, or through the child abuse reporting hotline.”

Heotis appealed the denial, arguing that provisions of the Teacher Licensing Act cited by the board in her disciplinary decision were unconstitutional because the Act failed to provide for a range of sanctions for misconduct—which would allow the board to issue a lesser sanction than the complete denial of her license—and arguing that the board did not have the authority to discipline her for failing to report the abuse of her daughter because that action was unconnected to her work as a teacher. The case rose to a state court of appeals, which issued a decision affirming the board.

The Act, Heotis argued, differed from other licensing statutes by failing to provide a variety of options to the board from which to choose her disciplinary sanction. By way of example, she pointed out, when choosing to discipline a licensee, the state’s dental board has the authority to choose whether to deny the renewal of a license, place a license on probation, issue a letter of admonition to licensee, or levy a fine.

This argument failed to convince the court, who noted that different level of discretion afforded to a different board did not amount to a constitutional violation. “Heotis cites no authority, and we are not aware of any such authority, that supports the notion that the greater disciplinary flexibility in these other licensing statutes represents some constitutional minimum,” wrote Judge David Furman.

Moving on to Heotis’s argument that the Teacher Licensing Act did not mandate that she report the abuse of her daughter in her role as a parent—as opposed to abuse she encountered in her role as a teacher—the court again found against the teacher. The state’s Child Protection Act imposes mandatory requirements on teachers to report child abuse, Judge Furman noted, and did not contain an exception for teachers who encounter abuse in their role as a parent.

Heotis’s status as the parent did not create a valid excuse, the judge wrote. The Child Protection Act “imposes a duty to report any known or suspected abuse or neglect on ‘any person’ who is a public school employee; the statute does not specify any circumstances under which the person must learn of the suspected abuse or neglect to be subject to this reporting duty.”

“In other words, the reporting duty imposed on mandatory reporters by [the Act] applies irrespective of the circumstances in which the reporter learns of or suspects abuse or neglect. . . Heotis had a statutory and moral duty to report the abuse of her daughter even though she learned of the abuse in her personal family life and not while working in her professional capacity.”

Last, the court determined that the board had not acted excessively in denying Heotis her license. The administrative law judge hearing her case had determined that, by failing to report the abuse, Heotis had subjected her daughter, as well as other children who came into unsupervised contact with her husband, to further risk.

This finding was sufficient to support the board’s decision that Heotis engaged in unethical behavior that “offended the morals of the community,” the legal standard under which the board could discipline her license.

Having rejected Heotis’s arguments, the court upheld the board’s denial of her license.