When does a counseling letter become a form of discipline?
On Board Online • December 11, 2017
By Jeffrey Mongelli
Senior Staff Counsel
School administrators can issue counseling letters that constitute critical administrative evaluations and place them in an employee's personnel file. However, depending on the wording of a letter and other factors, the commissioner of education or a court might view it as a disciplinary reprimand that is permissible only upon a finding of misconduct consistent with due process protections.
In Appeal of Leake, the commissioner considered a counseling letter related, in part, to allegations that a teacher had used inappropriate language toward another teacher. Following administrative findings that certain allegations were substantiated, the letter reminded the teacher of his "obligation to act professionally and appropriately at all times in [his] interactions with other staff members." It also directed the teacher to comply with all supervisors' directives.
According to the teacher, the letter was a "'punishment' disguised as a '(w)arning.'"
The commissioner or a court could determine that a counseling letter constitutes an impermissible reprimand after considering if it:
- Was sent from the board of education, rather than the teacher's immediate supervisor.
- Represents a formal reprimand for prior misconduct rather than a communication directed toward an improvement in performance.
- Reads like a castigation for misconduct rather than being in the nature of a performance evaluation.
Also considered are the severity of the misconduct and of the admonition or reprimand, as well as the actual language of the letter and the circumstances in which it was issued as a whole.
In this case, the commissioner concluded that the letter at issue, while critical, was a permissible administrative evaluation. It was written by a single administrator and called attention to instances of misconduct, "remind[ing] [the teacher] of his obligation to act professionally and appropriately at all times in his interactions with staff members and to comply with school policy in the future." In addition, the misconduct, "while inappropriate [was] relatively minor." and the district did not take any further action against the teacher.
Counseling letters are best used to encourage compliance with school policy and as guidance to improve job performance. Crafting an effective counseling letter can be challenging. It is always good practice for school districts to have counseling letters reviewed by their school attorney before they are issued.
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