By Lesley Weidenbener
An administrative law judge overstepped her boundaries by suspending an educator's license on the grounds that the woman is unfit to teach, an attorney told the Indiana Court of Appeals on Tuesday.
Instead, the Department of Education's administrative judge needed to have determined that Patricia Terkosky - who was a special needs teacher at an elementary school - either acted immorally or committed misconduct for actions taken against her students, said her attorney, Eric Hylton.
Those are two of the terms used in the state law that permit revocations and suspensions, he said. The administrative judge "used the wrong standard," Hylton said. "She used unfit to teach, which is not" part of Indiana law.
But Deputy Attorney General Kyle Hunter said that the totality of Terkosky's actions led the administrative judge to order the suspension. The teacher is accused of hitting two special needs students, grabbing one so hard she left a bruise and putting a cover over one's head, which led to her firing from the Greene-Sullivan Special Education Cooperative where she taught for 23 years.
"She showed a level of immorality that fits under the definition in Indiana law," Hunter said.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court heard the case at Franklin College as part of Constitution Day. The event in the school's chapel drew education and political science students as well as local attorneys who stayed for a reception and discussion about the case.
Judge John Baker told the crowd the court likes to take its proceedings into communities - which he called "appeals on wheels" - so Hoosiers can see how the appellate process works.
"We want them to see what we do and what we don't do," he said, indicating his colleagues on the bench as well as the attorneys who had just completed their oral arguments. "This is really a discussion amongst five lawyers."
He told the students - some of whom plan to move on to law school - that attorneys are "problem solvers" who play different roles in court.
The judges didn't answer questions about the teacher suspension case. They will deliberate privately and likely rule in the coming months.
At issue in part is whether the administrative law judge appropriately used California case law to determine that Terkosky's actions made her unfit to teach. That out-of-state case dealt specifically with definitions of immorality, something that has not been addressed by Indiana cases in situations involving license revocations.
However, in a different context, an Indiana appeals court found that an educator's conduct "is immoral if it is offensive to the morals of the community has a negative impact on the teacher's students," according to court documents.
Appellate Judge Cale Bradford said in this case, the administrative law judge made no such specific finding of immorality. Bradford asked the attorneys if the appeals court could simply send the case back to the Department of Education where an administrative law judge could make that determination. Hunter, the attorney for the state, said yes.
But Hylton, the attorney for the teacher, said that would be inappropriate and would invite the administrative judge to try to "put magic words in there" so that the decision would withstand appellate scrutiny.
Hylton asked the judges to set aside the two-year license suspension - even though Terkosky already has served it - to clear her name and enable her to find a new job.
"There's still harm that can be undone," Hylton said. The suspension will "hang on her the rest of her life."
Hylton also argued that the administrative law judge did not have the authority to yank Terkosky's license for two years because the state superintendent of public instruction had only requested it be revoked, not suspended.
But Hunter said superintendent is only recommending specific action and the administrative judge can choose the best option.
Lesley Weidenbener is executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news service powered by Franklin College journalism students and faculty.