TEACHING ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHILDREN with intellectual disabilities requires skill, patience, and devotion, and those who undertake this task are among the unsung heroes of our society. Their difficult and challenging work rarely brings the prestige or financial rewards it deserves. Mrs. Pettit was one of those dedicated teachers. Licensed to teach in California, she had been working with mentally challenged children for over thirteen years when her career came to an abrupt end. Throughout that career, her competence was never questioned, and the evaluations of her school principal were always positive.
Teaching was not Pettit’s only interest, however. She and her husband viewed with favor various “nonconventional sexual lifestyles,” including “wife swapping.” Because so-called sexual liberation was a hot topic at the time, the Pettits were invited to discuss their ideas on two local television shows. Although they wore disguises, at least one fellow teacher recognized them and discussed Mrs. Pettit’s views with colleagues. A year later Pettit, then forty-eight years old, and her husband joined “The Swingers,” a private club in Los Angeles that sponsored parties intended to promote diverse sexual activities among its members. An undercover police officer, Sergeant Berk, visited one of those parties at a private residence. Amid a welter of sexual activity, he observed Mrs. Pettit perform fellatio on three different men in a one-hour period.
Pettit was arrested and charged with oral copulation, which at the time contravened the California Penal Code (although now it does only if one of the parties is under eighteen). After a plea bargain was arranged, she pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor of outraging public decency and paid a fine. The school district renewed her teaching contract the next academic year, but two years later, disciplinary proceedings were initiated against her. The State Board of Education found no reason to complain about her services as a teacher, and it conceded that she was unlikely to repeat her sexual misconduct. But the Board revoked her elementary school life diploma—that is, her license to teach—on the ground that by engaging in immoral and unprofessional conduct at the party, she had demonstrated that she was unfit to teach.
Pettit fought the loss of her license all the way to the California Supreme Court, which upheld the decision of the Board of Education.116 In an earlier case, the court had reversed the firing of a public school teacher for unspecified homosexual conduct, concluding that a teacher’s actions could not constitute “immoral or unprofessional conduct” or “moral turpitude” unless there was clear evidence of unfitness to teach. But Pettit’s case was different, the court hastened to explain.
The conduct in the earlier case had not been criminal, oral copulation had not been involved, and the conducthad been private. Further, in that case the Board had acted with insufficient evidence of unfitness to teach; by contrast, three school administrators had testified that in their opinion, Pettit’s conduct proved her unfit to teach. These experts worried that she would inject her views of sexual morality into the classroom, and they doubted that she could act as a moral example to the children she taught. Yet teachers, the court reaffirmed, are supposed to serve as exemplars, and the Education Code makes it a statutory duty of teachers to “endeavor to impress upon the minds of the pupils the principles of morality … and to instruct them in manners and morals.”
In a vigorous dissent, Justice Tobringer rejected the opinion of the majority, arguing that no evidence had established that Pettit was not fit to teach. The three experts didn’t consider her record; they couldn’t point to any past misconduct with students, nor did they suggest any reason to anticipate future problems. They simply assumed that the fact of her sexual acts at the “swingers” party itself demonstrated that she would be unable to set a proper example or to teach her pupils moral principles.
Such an attitude is unrealistic, Tobringer argued, when studies show that 75 to 80 percent of the women of Pettit’s educational level and age range engage in oral copulation. The majority opinion “is blind to the reality of sexual behavior” and unrealistically assumes that “teachers in their private lives should exemplify Victorian principles of sexual morality.” Pettit’s actions were private and could not have affected her teaching ability. Had there not been clandestine surveillance of the party, the whole issue would never have arisen.