‘Sick’ Teachers May Face Criminal Prosecution

Published February 22, 2011

Public school teachers who played hooky last week to demonstrate in Madison—falsely claiming to be sick, forcing dozens of schools across the state to shut down, and dragging kids to Madison with them—better hope school districts, state and local prosecutors, parents, and citizens don’t throw the book at them. The Wisconsin law book, that is.

Schools in Madison were shut down for three days the week of February 14 because of understaffing after many teachers called in sick to attend the demonstrations. Milwaukee schools closed Friday, for the same reason, as did numerous smaller districts across the state.

Teachers engaging in this type of conduct, eagerly aided and abetted by teacher unions, the Democratic Party, Jesse Jackson, and even President Barack Obama, risk both criminal prosecution and civil litigation, not to mention loss of their jobs.

For starters, there’s the state code of ethics for public employees, Wis. Stat. §946.12. This code prohibits the intentional failure or refusal to perform a known, legal mandatory duty of employment (such as showing up at school to teach), the knowing performance of an act the employee is prohibited by law from doing (such as engaging in illegal strikes by calling in sick), or making a materially false statement or report (such as falsely calling in sick).

Anyone convicted of violating this code is guilty of a Class I felony and can be sentenced to a prison term of up to 18 months.

Then there are the truancy laws, Wis. Stat. §948.45, which are violated by a person who knowingly “encourages or contributes” to truancy of a child under 17 years old, which is defined as an absence of one day or more without parental notification. Convictions bring a $500 fine and/or a 30-day jail term.

Parents ought to take care as well. Under Wis. Stat. §118.15, they have a statutory obligation to “cause” their children between the ages of 6 and 18 to attend school regularly. It’s unclear what the penalties for violations are.

Thursday, the Capitol building in Madison was in lockdown, as more than 20,000 people demonstrated there, crowding the building corridors as children marched through them shouting and banging drums. Restrooms were blockaded, legislative staffers wishing to leave needed police escorts, and demonstrators outside pounded on office windows.

Only nine people were arrested, but there could have been many more people charged with disorderly conduct, which is defined as conduct that is abusive, boisterous, unreasonably loud, or tends to cause or provoke a disturbance (Wis. Stat. §947.01). Violators, if convicted, can be sentenced to fines of up to $1,000 or 90 days in jail or both.

School districts and teachers should be wary as well of citizens’ suits. Under Wisconsin law, schools and teachers have the mandatory duty to provide students with instructional programs that, among other things, teach rational thinking, making independent judgments, and solving problems (Wis. Stat. §118.01). Bringing students to the demonstrations in Madison, or encouraging them to attend them, where Gov. Scott Walker is depicted as Hitler and compared to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, breaches these duties.

So does failing to instruct students that what Gov. Scott Walker is attempting to do is balance the state budget, and to put into context his proposal for state employees to contribute modest amounts toward their pensions and health insurance benefits.

Schools and teachers also have the duty to provide students with “positive work attitudes and habits.” Teachers who falsely call in sick not only provide a bad example but also break this law. By encouraging students to bang drums, blockade hallways, and otherwise be rowdy in the Capitol building, teachers breach their statutory duty to teach students to have “the proper reverence and respect for” state laws.

It is a horrifying sight to watch the demonstrations, especially as they become increasingly vehement. But here’s the silver lining: No one will ever believe teachers again when they say “It’s about the children.”

Maureen Martin, J.D. ([email protected]) is senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute. She lives in central Wisconsin.