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Dirty Secrets: Why sexually abusive teachers aren't stopped

A small but dangerous contingent of sexual predators lurks among the dedicated teachers in our nation's classrooms

Sunday, October 31, 1999

By Jane Elizabeth Zemel and Steve Twedt, Post-Gazette Staff Writers

First of a three part series.

  Justin Kelly, with his mother, Kim Shrum, was 13 years old when his La Porte, Texas, homeroom teacher and football coach molested him. Michael J. Kluck was convicted of felony sex offenses. Justin, now 18, is suing the Nebraska school district that earlier had allowed Kluck to resign quietly after he was accused of misconduct there. (Brett Coomer, Associated Press)

Children are often taught in school to look out for adults who might hurt them. But sometimes, the grown-ups in their own classrooms are the ones who could do the most harm.

Sexual misconduct by educators is a volatile, sensitive subject that's been whispered about in school hallways and behind closed office doors as long as there have been schools. But a lack of public acknowledgment has helped the problem to spread and the bad teachers to circulate.

It's a problem that resonates nationally, but accusations of sexual misconduct also have appeared recently in Pittsburgh-area schools.

Joseph Doherty, an Avonworth School District teacher, was cleared of criminal charges but resigned under pressure after being accused of sexually assaulting a student in 1997. He was able to get a teaching job in Maryland this year even though Avonworth school officials had sent his case to the state Department of Education for review.

Dennis L. Bair, a music teacher in Burgettstown Area School District, Washington County, was convicted in June 1997 on two counts of indecent assault of a female student. However, he was allowed to surrender his license last year rather than have it revoked. That action effectively sealed his records and could enable him to teach again outside the state.

Gary Serlo taught elementary school in Westmoreland County in the early 1970s before being sent to a Greensburg prison in 1974 for child molestion. His license to teach in Pennsylvania wasn't revoked until last year, though, when he was convicted of molesting three boys in his new school district in New York. Because of an incomplete background check, school officials who hired Serlo never knew that he had served prison time for molestation.

Larry Mihalko, an elementary school teacher in Gateway School District, was charged earlier this year with indecent assault and other crimes. The charges stem from allegations brought by former students -- three pre-teen girls -- who have testified that Mihalko had improperly touched them while they were sitting on his lap, including putting his hand under their clothing.

Mihalko's attorney has said that hugging, patting and holding students on his lap was part of Mihalko's teaching style. Mihalko's trial is scheduled to begin in January.

Accused teachers represent a small percentage of our nation's educators. But those who do abuse students often abuse more than one, and the damage they do can be devastating.

The Post-Gazette has examined 727 cases across the U.S. in which an educator has lost his or her license for sex offenses during the past five years, and has found some disturbing trends. Among them:

The number of teachers who have lost their licenses because of sex offenses has increased nearly 80 percent since 1994.

Several of those who lost their licenses were caught only after they had been molesting students for many years.

Offending teachers sometimes get help landing another teaching job from a unexpected source -- their former bosses. The practice is so well-known among educators that they refer to it by name. They call it "passing the trash."

Individual states' aggressiveness in detecting and removing predators from the classroom varies widely, and some states do no background checks on teacher applicants at all. There is a private, national clearinghouse that tracks problem teachers but its director admits that states' reporting can be spotty, leaving everyone vulnerable to the so-called "mobile molester."

Even when caught, offending teachers can launch appeals that allow them to retain their teaching certificate for two to three more years. In some cases, those teachers have moved to another state and used that certificate to get a new teaching job until their appeals run out.

Weak communication between the education and criminal branches of state governments means that education officials don't always find out if a teacher has been arrested for sex crimes or other offenses. In one case, Missouri education officials had to send a license-revocation order to a Kansas man who had already begun serving a 90-year sentence for raping a teen-aged girl.

Striking again

Rumors and accusations that William C. Bennett was sexually abusing his male students first surfaced in the early 1980s, when he was teaching in a school in Virginia.

They finally ended at a high school in Akron, Ohio, earlier this year.

Bennett, a guidance counselor, pleaded guilty in May in a case that charged him with having sex with students -- even in his school office.

"If you have ever had a recurring nightmare, then you can probably relate to the last year-and-a-half of my life," one of his victims told the judge at Bennett's trial.

Bennett is now serving a year in jail, has surrendered his teaching certificates, and is registered as a sexual predator. He will never teach again, never devastate another young life.

Or will he?

Kenneth Long did. He was arrested twice in Florida, in 1989 and 1990, for offering students money for sex and was put on three years' probation. Yet he was hired in Alexandria, Va., in 1995 when officials there failed to check for a criminal history; then he moved to Washington, D.C., in February 1998.

In May, a federal grand jury in Washington indicted Long on 35 counts of interstate transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. The victim was a 14-year-old student. Long's trial is currently under way in Washington.

Terrible toll

In Pennsylvania, 38 teachers lost their certificates for sex-related offenses from 1997 through 1998, compared to 21 in the two years before that. But even the growing numbers don't reflect the actual toll, experts say.


Dirty Secrets, Part I:

Teachers fired for sex offenses

Bad teacher came with a letter of recommendation

Rash of cases leads one district to take hard look at policies

Case Files: Emily Slee and Robin Behling

Dirty Secrets, Part II:

Flawed system aids bad teachers

Dirty Secrets, Part III:

State education officials want legislators' help to end sexual abuse

Dirty Secrets: About the authors

How to order your reprint of 'Dirty Secrets'


The problem is not so much the number of offending teachers, it's the number of students a single bad teacher can victimize.

"When they get caught, it's never a case of one act of bad judgment with one child," said Dr. W. Richard Fossey, associate dean of the college of education at Louisiana State University, who has researched teacher discipline cases.

"If you've caught one, you know that the guy has a history."

And all too often, the victimizing teacher has help from an unlikely source -- administrators in his own school. Examples are plentiful:

A Houston-area family has filed suit against a Nebraska school district for allowing a problem teacher to resign, clean out his personnel file and walk away with a letter of recommendation in 1994. Weeks later, he was hired in Texas where, in the first month of classes, he molested their son.

In South Carolina, a young man molested by his teacher also is suing the teacher's former employer, Porter-Gaud School, and has posted his own web site to bring attention to the issue --

According to the suit, Edward Fischer was forced to resign from a private school in Charleston in 1982 after being accused of molesting a student. Yet administrators agreed to write a favorable letter of recommendation for him in exchange for that resignation, and he continued teaching. In April, Fischer, 71, was convicted of molesting 13 boys.

Four months after teacher Robert Pannier's conduct resulted in a warning against using vulgarity, profanity or sexual innuendo, two administrators in Mendota Heights, Minn., wrote recommendations for him in June 1995. He was hired by another Minnesota school district and taught until early 1998 -- when police arrested him for having sex with a 15-year-old student.

Doherty, the Avonworth School District teacher who resigned after being accused of sexually assaulting a student in 1997, was able to get a teaching job in Prince George's County, Md., this year even though school officials had sent his case to the state Department of Education for review.

Although Avonworth school officials knew that Doherty had applied for the job, Maryland school officials said they didn't know about Doherty's arrest until a Post-Gazette reporter called to question them about their knowledge of his background. After the PG's call, school administrators removed him from his classroom while they investigated.

Doherty had been secretly videotaped by Avonworth officials who had become suspicious of his behavior. On tape, he was seen engaged in what he called "wrestling moves" with a 12-year-old boy in his locked classroom. Even though prosecutors argued that Doherty was obviously sexually aroused in the videotape, the district justice decided that no crime had been committed. The boy and his mother would not testify.

Pennsylvania officials will not comment on the status of his teaching license.

Doherty, 39, no longer works in the Maryland district. He has filed a civil lawsuit against the Avonworth School Board, claiming they defamed his character.

Attitudes vary

The Post-Gazette study of teacher misconduct also shows that aggressiveness in removing predators from the classroom varies widely from state to state. While Ohio requires state and federal background checks, some states, including West Virginia, conduct no background checks on teacher applicants. Others, including Pennsylvania, perform partial checks. This has implications for all states, because the inconsistency in background checks makes it easier for bad teachers to circulate.

The Post-Gazette also found that it commonly takes two to three years, and sometimes longer, before education officials catch up to a license revocation made in another state. This sometimes gives the person time to find a teaching job in another state -- at least until their past offenses emerge.

In 1996, the Oregon agency that oversees teacher certification separately revoked the licenses of two teachers who were accused of making sexual advances toward students. The incidents had occurred as much as 12 years earlier, when the two men were teaching in different school districts in California. As California officials moved to take away their licenses, the two landed jobs in Oregon by falsely stating on their application that they were not under investigation.

Officials in Oregon learned of the first case when a parent in the teacher's former district tracked his whereabouts, then tipped Oregon officials. They found out about the second teacher when a reporter at a California paper called to ask about his teaching status.

Too often, a bad teacher is quietly relieved of his or her job, only to show up in another unsuspecting school.

In William C. Bennett's case, Akron officials said they weren't aware that Bennett had been dismissed from the Virginia school for what school officials called "inappropriate conduct toward a student."

But after a short time in Akron, he was accused of fondling a 9-year-old boy. The incident was resolved by moving the boy to another elementary school.

More accusations came from students in 1994, 1996 and 1997, but were dismissed as untrue, although Bennett was moved to the high school.

Last September, a college student went to school officials and told them Bennett had molested him in high school, and the investigation began that led to his guilty plea.

Leaving quietly

Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft, in a 1994 national survey of 225 school superintendents, found that 221 teachers accused of sexual abuse quietly resigned or retired from their district.

Of those, superintendents were aware of 22 teachers who then were hired in other districts. While they didn't know the whereabouts of the rest, the superintendents conceded that many of those teachers could be employed in other schools "and that it would be easy for them to get other teaching jobs," Shakeshaft said.

And all but about 1 percent retained their teaching licenses, Shakeshaft said.

In a 1991 survey of 65 superintendents in North Carolina, a Winston-Salem University professor found 26 cases of sex-related offenses by teachers over the past three years. In 12 cases, the teacher was fired or forced to resign, according to the researcher, Dr. Dan Wishnictsky.

In the other cases, the teachers were simply reprimanded. Only one case was marked "charges not proven."

On average, teachers who molest children have worked in two to three school districts before they're stopped, according to Craig Emanuel, an investigator with the Arizona Department of Education. These are the teachers he calls "the mobile molesters."

The typical mobile molester case goes like this, he said:

A teacher who's a sex offender works in a school district "living a double life, until he gets out of control." School officials then learn about the abuse, and ask the teacher to leave quietly, dodging bad publicity and expensive legal proceedings.

The teacher then moves to another district where he molests more children, and then possibly to yet another district.

By that time, according to Emanuel's observations, the teacher's victims from the first district get older, wiser, and report the abuse to the police.

The molester may then be prosecuted, but by that time he could have harmed dozens of children.

In Pennsylvania, local school districts are encouraged -- but not required -- to report teachers who are forced to resign "for cause." But it doesn't happen often.

"If a teacher is arrested, convicted, sent to jail, and resigns from his job, and the district doesn't tell us, and it's not in the newspapers, we may never know about it," said education department spokeswoman Michele Haskins. In that case, the teacher's certification would remain intact, allowing them to continue working in classrooms.

Tide is turning

When a teacher who has resigned under pressure applies for a job in another school district, often his previous school district will not reveal the problems to the new employer. That's because previous employers -- not only in school districts but in any profession -- are skittish about providing unfavorable references and possibly being sued by the employee.

However, the legal tide is turning. Previously, said Thomas W. Pickrell, director of legal services for the Arizona School Boards Association, lawyers told clients not to reveal any information about former employees.

"Now, people are questioning that, and focusing on the social costs of this practice," he said. "The no-comment policy is turning into a more common-sense policy."

Adding fuel to the "common sense" approach undoubtedly is the fact that more and more abuse victims are suing the school districts that allowed the bad teachers to resign and move to another school.

One of the most notorious cases involves former band teacher George Crear III, who was featured this month on ABC's "20/20." In 1987, two of Crear's former students in Flint, Mich., went to the Michigan Board of Education and told officials that they had been molested by Crear many years previously.

But the statute of limitations had expired in their cases, and no criminal charges could be filed. The board simply allowed Crear to resign, and his personnel file was purged.

Crear then obtained a job as a band teacher at Palmetto High School in Florida, where officials knew nothing of his background. Soon, Crear was facing sexual abuse allegations from at least three girls. One of those students committed suicide.

In a verdict that surprised even his attorneys, Crear was acquitted in Florida. But almost immediately, another Michigan victim came forward with charges that Crear abused her. Crear now is serving life in prison in Michigan. And a former Florida student who said she was molested by Crear was awarded $720,000 last year in a civil suit against the school district.

In a California case, a student complained to officials in the Pasadena Unified School District in 1983 about inappropriate advances by track coach Clyde Ezra Turner. The information went into a secret memorandum that didn't surface again until this year, when Turner was sentenced for molesting a 15-year-old boy.

The teen-ager testified that Turner had invited him to his home, showed him a pornographic video, and then molested him.

At Turner's trial, three other students testified that Turner molested them more than 15 years ago.

Until the secret memo was uncovered by prosecutors, school officials denied they knew about any previous incidents involving Turner, who led the track team to five state championships.

Such teacher misconduct is far from common, acknowledged Bart Zabin, an investigator with the New York State Department of Education. "There are only a small number of bad apples in this wonderful orchard. But saving even one child from an abusive teacher is important," he said.

One way to prevent abuse, said Arizona's Emanuel, is to stop accepting quiet resignations from teachers "when you yourself would not rehire this person" and to constantly be on the lookout for signs of teacher misconduct.

A few states even have laws that sanction administrators if they knowingly write a favorable recommendation to get rid of a problem teacher.

Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia are not among those states.

"We have to recognize," Emanuel said, "in this profession there are people, child molesters, who will go to any lengths to be with children."

TOMORROW: A flawed system makes it difficult to police the problem of abusive teachers.

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