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EDITORIAL: Florida educator ethics law reactionary, unclear

A new educator ethics law requiring more thorough employee background checks for any position entailing direct contact with students will go into effect July 1.

The law also redefines the offenses for which Florida educators and school personnel can be terminated and contains a 49-item list of crimes that will render an individual ineligible for hire.

Performing more thorough background checks on teachers to prevent dangerous individuals from coming in contact with students is an admirable and responsible move, but creating a piece of legislation rife with vague, unclear terms is not an effective means of doing this.

One section outlining the qualifications Florida educators must exhibit states: “To be eligible for appointment in any position … a person must be of good moral character.”

Another section containing a list of crimes that will bar somebody from working as an educator in Florida includes any arrests “relating to obscenity.”

Neither of these mandates defines or explains the terms on which they are based. It is unclear what constitutes “good moral character” or “obscenity.”

Several other disqualifications listed in the ethics law go as far back as juvenile offenses, such as the 49th listing, which prevents those convicted of crimes “relating to introduction, removal, or possession of contraband at a juvenile detention facility or commitment program” from becoming Florida educators.

While some crimes committed by juveniles are severe enough to warrant disqualification from working in a school setting, others are not, and the law does not take into consideration the amount of time since a person’s juvenile arrest.

Florida’s education system has been characterized by a slew of scandals in the past four years, kick-started by the salaciously newsworthy arrest of Debra Lafave, the Tampa teacher notorious for engaging in a sexual relationship with her 14-year-old Greco Middle School student.

Incidents like Lafave’s misconduct sparked widespread outcry about the kinds of teachers working in Florida schools, and this law is essentially a legislative knee-jerk reaction to the uproar that will likely create more headaches than headway.