Case 9.1 Unprofessional Conduct?
Teaching elementary school children with intellectual disabilities requires skill, patience, and devo-tion,
and those who undertake this task are among the unsung heroes of our society. Their difficult and
challeng-ing work rarely brings the prestige or financial rewards it deserves. Mrs. Pettit was one of those
dedicated teachers. Licensed to teach in California, she had been working with mentally challenged
children for over thirteen years when her career came to an abrupt end. Throughout that career, her
competence was never questioned, and the evaluations of her school principal were always positive.
Teaching was not Pettit’s only interest, however. She and her husband viewed with favor various “
nonconventional sexual life-styles,” including “ wife swapping.” Because so- called sexual liberation was a
hot topic at the time, the Pettits were invited to discuss their ideas on two local television shows.
Although they wore disguises, at least one fellow teacher recognized them and discussed Mrs. Pettit’s
views with colleagues. A year later Pettit, then forty- eight years old, and her husband joined “ The
Swingers,” a private club in Los Angeles that sponsored parties intended to promote diverse sexual
activities among its mem-bers. An undercover police officer, Sergeant Berk, visited one of those parties
at a private residence. Amid a welter of sexual activity, he observed Mrs. Pettit perform fellatio on three
different men in a one- hour period. Pettit was arrested and charged with oral copulation, which at the
time contravened the California Penal Code ( although now it does only if one of the parties is under
eight-een). After a plea bargain was arranged, she pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor of outraging public
decency and paid a fine. The school district renewed her teaching contract the next academic year, but
two years later, disciplinary proceedings were initiated against her. The State Board of Education found
no reason to complain about her services as a teacher, and it conceded that she was unlikely to repeat
her sexual miscon-duct. But the Board revoked her elementary school life diploma— that is, her license
to teach— on the ground that by engaging in immoral and unprofessional conduct at the party, she had
demonstrated that she was unfit to teach. Pettit fought the loss of her license all the way to the
California Supreme Court, which upheld the decision of the Board of Education. 116 In an earlier case, the
court had reversed the firing of a public school teacher for unspecified homosexual conduct, concluding
that a teacher’s actions could not consti-tute “ immoral or unprofessional conduct” or “ moral
turpitude” unless there was clear evidence of unfitness to teach. But Pettit’s case was different, the
court hastened to explain. The conduct in the earlier case had not been criminal, oral copulation had not
been involved, and the conduct had been private. Further, in that case the Board had acted with insuffi-
cient evidence of unfitness to teach; by contrast, three school administrators had testified that in their
opinion, Pettit’s con-duct proved her unfit to teach. These experts worried that she would inject her
views of sexual morality into the classroom, and they doubted that she could act as a moral example to
the children she taught. Yet teachers, the court reaffirmed, are supposed to serve as exemplars, and the
Education Code makes it a statutory duty of teachers to “ endeavor to impress upon the minds of the
pupils the principles of morality . . . and to instruct them in manners and morals.” In a vigorous dissent,
Justice Tobringer rejected the opin-ion of the majority, arguing that no evidence had established that
Pettit was not fit to teach. The three experts didn’t consider her record; they couldn’t point to any
past miscon-duct with students, nor did they suggest any reason to antici-pate future problems. They
simply assumed that the fact of her sexual acts at the “ swingers” party itself demonstrated that she
would be unable to set a proper example or to teach her pupils moral principles. Such an attitude is
unrealistic, Tobringer argued, when studies show that 75 to 80 percent of the women of Pettit’s
educational level and age range engage in oral copulation. The majority opinion “ is blind to the reality
of sexual behavior” and unrealistically assumes that “ teachers in their private lives should exemplify
Victorian principles of sexual morality.” Pettit’s actions were private and could not have affected her
teaching ability. Had there not been clandestine surveillance of the party, the whole issue would never
1. In concerning itself with Pettit’s off- the- job conduct, did the Board of Education violate her right to
privacy? Or was its concern with her lifestyle legitimate and employ-ment related?
2. Was Pettit’s behavior “ unprofessional”? Was it “ immoral”? Did it show a “ lack of fitness” to teach?
Explain how you understand the terms in quotation marks.
3. Was the Board of Education justified in firing Pettit? Explain.
4. Was the court’s verdict consistent with its earlier handling of the case of the homosexual teacher?
5. If teachers perform competently in the classroom, should they also be required to be moral exemplars
in their pri-vate lives? Are employees in other occupations expected to provide a moral example— either
on or off the job?
6. Which of the following, in your view, would show unprofessional conduct, immorality, or lack of fitness
to teach: drunken driving, smoking marijuana, advocating the use of marijuana, forging a check, resisting
arrest for disorderly conduct and assaulting a police officer, being discovered in a compromising
position with a student, propositioning a student, cheating on income tax, calling attention to one’s
openly homosexual lifestyle?
7. Under what conditions do employers have a legitimate interest in their employees’ off- the- job
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