Lawmakers want tougher penalties for foul-mouthed teachers
PHOENIX -- State lawmakers are moving to suspend or fire teachers whose vocabulary is a little too salty.
But they're so far not willing to spell out which ones will get an instructor into trouble.
On a 6-2 vote the Senate Committee on Government Reform approved legislation Wednesday that would impose penalties on those who engage in speech or conduct that would violate the standard the Federal Communications Commission has adopted for obscenity, indecency and profanity for television and radio broadcasts. A first offense or second offense draws just a warning; three or more incidents mandate loss of the job.
"It's common sense that most people don't use profane language,' said Sen. Lori Klein, R-Anthem. But she said that apparently is not the case.
More to the point, Klein said these kind of words pop up in the classroom, and by teachers.
"The teachers need to create a higher standard in the classroom,' she said. And Klein said while these issues should be addressed by local school boards with their own policies, that is not happening.
The problem, she said, is not limited to the bad words themselves.
"The problem with this type of profanity and speech, especially in the high school, is it leads to violence,' Klein. "We do not want a school that is out of control, where the kids are out of control.'
Sen. Frank Antenori, R-Tucson, cited disciplinary records of Tucson Unified School District teachers posted by the Arizona Daily Star. It includes several instances of instructors cited for foul language.
"I couldn't say it in here,' Antenori told colleagues.
That still leaves the question of where to draw the line.
Comedian George Carlin, in a 1972 comedy routine, said the FCC had identified seven words "that'll infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.' He spelled out for listeners what they are.
But Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, noted the the FCC guidelines themselves are not quite that specific.
The agency uses a three-part test for obscenity, including whether the material describes sexual conduct "in a patently offensive way' and that, taken as a whole, lacks serious artistic, literary, political or scientific value.'
And the FCC on its web site, defines as "including language so grossly offensive to members of the public who actually hear it as to amount to a nuisance.'
Gallardo said none of that provides sufficient guidance.
"Should we put these words in the bill?' he asked. Gallardo said he think that's important, given that the penalties, including getting fired, amount to "a big hammer over teachers.'
Klein did not like that idea.
"I do not think we need to put profanity in our bill to make a point,' she said.
"It's very clear if you go to the FCC website what those words are.'
But Klein conceded after the committee vote that it may not be as transparent as she suggested. She promised to recraft the measure when SB 1205 goes to the full Senate to clarify what is and is not permitted.
"We are going to be amending this to actually take out the FCC itself but define more clearly what the definition of profanity should do,' she said.
Klein, however, could provide no specifics.
"I think it's fairly apparent that profanity is profanity,' Klein said. "You know when you see it.'
Gallardo said that's no answer.
"Unless you come up with some specific words of what can and cannot be said in the classroom, you're putting these teachers in a sticky situation,' he said. Gallardo said the best thing for lawmakers to do is back away and let schools handle it on a local level.
Klein said she will work with school districts and superintendents to come up with something acceptable.
"The teachers are there to teach and be able to have the highest standards for kids,' she said.
"We have had so much testimony about parents being disappointed about the kids not being held accountable (for their language and conduct), but even worse, the teachers not being held accountable to a higher standard and not using profane language in the school.'
Klein said the intent of the legislation is not to punish teachers. Instead, she said it is designed to force schools to impose more discipline on teachers and, by extension, on the language used by students not only in the classrooms but in the halls.
"Parents do not want to come down (to their school) if Johnny's using the F-bomb,' she said.
"Maybe the schools' educators and the boards and the districts will get the point that if their teachers are held to a higher standard that they ought to hold those kids to a higher standard.'
Sen. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, agreed to go along with other Republicans on the committee in approving the bill. But he said he has some major concerns that teachers might find themselves being disciplined because a kid "has an axe to grind' and files a false report on what a teacher has said.
"Who decides that it really happened?' he asked.
"All of a sudden, we have a teacher hung out to dry, once, twice, three times, and they're gone because a rogue student or students say, 'Teacher, look what I'm going to do to you today, I'm going to go complain to my principal,' ' Smith continued. "What recourse does the teacher have to defend themselves?'