For those who follow me on Twitter and who follow this blog, you may have noticed a bit less content in the past two weeks than usual. I was busy assisting my colleague Shelli Anderson with a tenured teacher dismissal hearing and so was not as focused on Tweeting and blogging as I would usually be. Since I’ve been back, I have come across some interesting stories about teacher misconduct, including a teacher accused of locking students in a closet in Arizona, and a teacher who allegedly made the following comment on Twitter after Barack Obama’s presidential win:
Congrats Obama. As one of my students sang down the hallway, ‘We get to keep our fooood stamps’…which I pay for because they can’t budget their money…and really, neither can you.”
What better time than now to review a few tips and tricks for employee discipline investigations? As most school leaders know too well, the first step when you get an allegation of misconduct like those cited above is to conduct an investigation to determine if discipline is warranted. One of the first things you do in that process, moreover, is to conduct interviews of employees, including the employee about whom the allegation is made. Here are a few tips and tricks to keep in mind when completing this important step in the investigatory process.
Admonitions and Representation
The purpose of these initial meetings is fact gathering, so it is important to make that point clear to the subject of the interview. Always begin an interview by telling the employee that you are there to gather all the facts you can so that they understand the purposes of the interview. If an employee is hesitant to participate, moreover, you can remind them that this is the chance to tell his/her side of the story and to ensure the administration has the whole story when making decisions about the situation. And of course, always make sure the employee knows before the meeting about any rights to union representation and that the employee may have and make sure that any necessary representative is present during the interview.
Document the Interview
You should designate one person – and only one person – to take notes during the interview, keeping in mind that the notes someday may be submitted to an administrative agency, an arbitrator or a court. If you interview more than one person, make sure notes for each person are on separate pieces of paper and are identified clearly by date, time, place, and list of participants in the interview. Remember, these notes are to document what is said. Avoid including the note-taker’s interpretations, beliefs, assumptions, or conclusions about what is said in the notes – save that for conversations with your legal counsel.
Keeping track of various incidents during an interview can be confusing. Try to focus in chronological order on the blocks of time for each event at issue in the interview. And try not to move from one block of time to another until you have completely covered all the details in the first block of time. For each block of time, pull out your journalist’s hat and remember the “Five Ws and One H.” This blog uses a silly example of reporting on The Three Little Pigs to show how to flesh out the facts in interview questions. These tips are equally applicable in the school context. Remember, too, that your interview is also time for fact collecting, so find out if there are any notes, recordings, photographs, physical evidence, or other documentation of the event that you can obtain from the interviewee.
Your tone is very important when you are conducting interviews, so remember not to be hostile. It’s often best to start with open ended questions and move slowly to more directed or embarrassing questions once the employee has opened up. But you should at some point pin the employee down to the facts, discussing specifics of what the employee actually saw, heard, did, smelled, felt, or said, rather than the employee’s conclusions or any hearsay that the employee might not have witnessed himself. Listen carefully to what the employee says and follow up on hints or contradictions. Try not to give away information about your theory of the case or what the school district’s strategy may be.
At the conclusion of the interview, review the notes with the employee to confirm their accuracy and determine whether the employee has any more information to add. Then, after the meeting, review and finalize the notes with the interview team immediately upon the completion of the interview, ensuring that they are legible and error-free.