Yakima teacher now faces state investigation

YAKIMA -- Although a private arbitrator ruled Tuesday that Michele Taylor can keep her East Valley teaching job, the state now is investigating whether she can keep her teaching certification.

The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction will make its decision in February.

The school district tried to fire the 32-year-old physical education teacher, who was acquitted of criminal charges in June. Taylor had been accused of having sex with a 16-year-old student and sending sexual messages to him and a 15-year-old boy. She's been on paid administrative leave since June 2009, when the allegations were brought against her.

The arbitrator in the school district's hearing was paid in full by the school district, as required by the law, said Michael Patterson, attorney for the East Valley School District.

The OSPI typically responds by launching its own, independent investigation -- only after the district completes its probe and determines there is a "preponderance of evidence" pointing to guilt, said OSPI spokesperson Nathan Olson.

Patterson told the Yakima Herald-Republic that state law required the school district superintendent to report the allegations to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction. In the Taylor case, Olson said his agency wanted to wait until the trial's conclusion before taking action.

"We didn't want to step on anyone else's toes," he said.

OSPI investigates any serious allegations of wrongdoing, from sexual relationships between students and teachers to teachers transporting students across state lines, Olson said. His office is currently reviewing 80 to 85 cases.

With regard to Taylor, an OSPI investigator will analyze the court transcripts and interview everyone involved in the case. This person will then write a recommendation, which will be forwarded to the director of professional practices and Superintendent Randy Dorn, who will issue a decision, Olson said.

One of four scenarios could happen. The case could be dismissed, meaning Taylor will keep her certification. She could be suspended for a length of time determined by OSPI and be required to take corrective action in the form of additional classes or training.

She could lose her certification but retain the right to reapply for it each year. Or, she could lose her certification permanently, Olson said.

Without her certification, she would not be allowed to teach in any public school in Washington, but she could teach in a private school, Olson said.

If one of the three latter options is the result, Taylor has the right to appeal to the Audit Professional Conduct Advisory Committee, a nine-member group appointed by the state superintendent. The committee is overseen by a review officer, who has a contract with OSPI.

The committee meets once in the fall and once in the spring. It would hear the evidence in a one- or two-day trial and make a decision on the spot, Olson said.

If the ruling goes against Taylor, she can appeal once more to an administrative law judge, who has the final say on the matter, Olson said. During the entire investigative and appeals process, Taylor will retain the right to teach, he said.

No date has been set for Taylor to return to work. She could not be reached for comment for this story.