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A tenured teacher can be fired under the Pennsylvania Public School Code’s immorality clause for her multiple DUI convictions and sentences, the state’s Commonwealth Court has ruled. The court said the multiple offenses showed that the teacher was more than a victim of a serious mistake; she was a bad influence on the morals of the children she taught. Judge Dan Pellegrini wrote the opinion in Zelno v. Lincoln Intermediate Unit No. 12. Judges Rochelle Friedman and Samuel Rodgers joined him on the panel. Nancy Zelno was a tenured employee assigned to teach in an alternative education program for court-adjudicated delinquent males at Lincoln Intermediate Unit No. 12, a drug and alcohol residential treatment facility in New Oxford, Pa. On May 5, 1999, Zelno pleaded guilty to one count of driving under the influence of alcohol and one count of driving while her license was suspended for a prior DUI offense. Pellegrini said it was her third DUI offense and her second offense for driving with a suspended license. Zelno was given a 92-day sentence, to be served on consecutive weekends during the school year and during the entire summer vacation. The sentence was to run consecutively with a sentence Zelno was serving for a prior DUI conviction. The Lincoln Intermediate Unit learned of the convictions in the summer of 2000 and began dismissal proceedings against Zelno, claiming her conduct violated Section 1122 of the Public School Code of 1949, regarding immorality and intemperance. At a hearing before the Lincoln Intermediate Unit board, Zelno did not dispute her convictions. Several witnesses who were members of the community within the school district testified that Zelno’s conduct offended the morals of the community and set a bad example for the students. A majority of the board voted to approve the firing of Zelno and separately concluded that her conduct constituted immorality under the school code. Zelno appealed to the secretary of education, who affirmed the decision. Zelno appealed. Pellegrini said that the school code does not define immorality but that the courts have defined it as “a course of conduct as offends the morals of the community and is a bad example to the youth whose ideals a teacher is supposed to foster and elevate.” Zelno argued that the education secretary was wrong in concluding that her conduct was immoral, but that, even if it were, she should not have been fired, because witnesses could not identify any particular person whose morals had been corrupted or that her offenses had interfered with her ability to teach. But the court, which cited Zelno’s pattern of offenses, was not convinced. “As for her argument that a conviction for drunken driving is not tantamount to immorality justifying her termination, the argument would be more persuasive if it were not her third offense,” Pellegrini said. “A third offense indicates not a single act of misjudgment, but rather a pattern of conduct that is not only damaging to herself, but also puts the public in serious danger.” Pellegrini said the idea that multiple DUI offenses elevate what could be a serious mistake to immorality is supported by the Motor Vehicle Code, which increases the punishment for three or more DUI offenses. “As can be seen from Section 3731(e) of the vehicle code, the nature of the offense for driving under the influence increases in seriousness and penalty — with Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition for a first-time offender resulting in no conviction and no penalty up to a misdemeanor in the first degree with up to one year in jail,” Pellegrini said. “In this case, Zelno was convicted of DUI three times and she received a sentence of 90 days, evidencing that her pattern of conduct resulting in a criminal offense conviction of a type that constitutes immoral conduct as that term is used in the school code.” Pellegrini also said it made no difference that evidence was not presented that Zelno had corrupted the morals of a specific student. “Proof of the conduct makes her a bad role model,” Pellegrini said. “Ignoring that she was teaching students who were at this school because they also had drug and alcohol problems, her conduct, which resulted in three drunken driving convictions and two more for driving without a license, is per se, conduct that is a bad example to students whose ideals she is supposed to foster. This affects her credibility and impacts her ability to teach.”

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