Lawmakers struggle to define 'moral turpitude'

Riley Snyder
Riley Snyder
Michelle Rindels
Michelle Rindels

Although Nevada lawmakers just passed bills by wide margins that aim to stave off teacher misconduct, they couldn’t come to an agreement Wednesday on precisely what kind of immoral behavior is enough to disqualify someone from the classroom.

Members of the state’s Legislative Commission — an interim committee composed of 12 lawmakers that grants final approval to regulations approved by state agencies — voted to delay a proposed regulation that would have further clarified what sort of crimes of “moral turpitude” would preclude prospective or current teachers from obtaining or renewing a license.

State law already holds that Nevada education officials are required to deny a license application if a prospective teacher undergoes a background check and “has been convicted of a felony or any offense involving moral turpitude.” The proposed regulations were an attempt to clarify what exactly “moral turpitude” entails, as the phrase isn’t defined in state law, and bring certainty for teacher candidates, those seeking to renew their licenses and educators coming from out of state who might have been subject to different rules.

Even though members of the state’s Office of Educator Licensure said they’ve been using “moral turpitude” as a metric in accepting or rejecting license applications since 2014, legislators in both parties expressed concerns that the regulations were overly broad.

“So if you had something you think was working, why did you feel like you needed to fix it?” Democratic Assemblywoman Maggie Carlton asked. “I think this opens up a whole can of worms.”

Under the existing system, the state superintendent has full discretion on what constitutes moral turpitude. There’s been much discussion about prospective changes to the system since the regulations started being developed in 2015.

“We really wanted to engage the community on that because we feel that moral turpitude … has a very local context,” said Deputy Superintendent Dena Durish.

The proposed regulations list out 24 different crimes included in the definition of “moral turpitude,” ranging from unlawful use of a firearm and sex trafficking to cruelty to animals. More serious crimes are required to always be taken into account, while less violent crimes — such as drug possession or multiple DUI offenses — would factor into a decision if they happened within the past 10 years.

“I think that we appreciate that this is a difficult topic for folks to understand,” Durish said. But she added that teacher preparation providers “are anxiously awaiting these guidelines because as you can imagine, they don’t want to admit people to these programs who would then turn around and not be eligible for a license based on a superintendent’s definition of moral turpitude.”

Jason Dietrich, director of the educational standards office, said that the current guidelines for moral turpitude were “fairly sound,” with only about 120 license applications rejected out of more than 36,000 submitted over the past three years. He said the department’s goal with the regulations was to bring more transparency into the process.

Because of the vote, state education officials must now work with Legislative Counsel Bureau to rework the regulations, then hold another hearing on them. The regulations would then proceed to another vote of the Legislative Commission, which hasn’t scheduled but is likely to happen within the next few months.

The roadblock Wednesday comes after a session in which lawmakers took a variety of steps to ramp up ethical standards for educators and weed out predatory teachers.

The Legislature voted unanimously on AB124, a bill that requires a state commission to design a model code of educator ethics. That bill aims to ensure teachers have healthy relationships with their students but don’t get so close that they cross an ethical line.

Lawmakers also voted for SB287, which requires background checks of school volunteers and ramps up penalties for people who knew about a school employee abusing a child, but didn’t report it. It also requires agencies who are investigating a report of misconduct to determine whether it’s substantiated, and if so, to forward that information to the Nevada Department of Education.

“This will reduce the gap which contributes to the national problem of “passing the trash” which is when school personnel are allowed to resign instead of face charges for physical, sexual, or other abuse,” Sandoval said when he announced he was signing the bill.

AB77, which passed with only a handful of no votes, now requires charter schools to adhere to criminal case reporting rules that govern traditional public schools. Existing law requires the education department to set a procedure for notifying, tracking and monitoring the status of criminal cases involving licensed educators.

Members of the interim panel also approved a separate set of regulations slightly increasing the fees paid by prospective teachers to run criminal history background checks. Dietrich said the $19 fee increase would generate roughly $200,000 over the two-year budget cycle and will be used to support a new licensure system that transitions from a paper-based to online system.

Feature photo: A student at work at Sierra Nevada Academy Charter School on March 14, 2017. Photo by David Calvert.


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