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Dirty Secrets: Bad teacher came with a letter of recommendation

Sunday, October 31, 1999

By Steve Twedt, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- The 1993-94 school year had barely begun before administrators in Elwood, Neb., knew they had a problem with second-year English teacher Michael J. Kluck.

Michael J. Kluck 

By the end of the first month, citing "numerous complaints" from parents, the school principal officially reprimanded Kluck for touching his teen-age students inappropriately and telling dirty jokes in class.

One student said Kluck had approached her from behind, put his hand on her shoulder and slid his finger under her bra strap. Several other girls said he often would look down their blouses and make suggestive comments. Staff members and students told administrators they had noticed that Kluck invited junior high boys to his home after school, where they would be alone with him for hours, playing computer video games.

Kluck called these acts "completely innocent," but the principal thought otherwise. "Some students have expressed a fear of being alone with you in the classroom and they feel very uncomfortable being around you," the principal wrote in the reprimand.

Instead of firing Kluck, however, the Elwood administration agreed in March 1994 to let Kluck finish the school year, clean out his own personnel record and quietly resign. They even provided Kluck with a letter of recommendation that complimented Kluck because "outwardly he showed an interest in his students."

Among educators, this is known as "passing the trash" -- sending a problem teacher on his way to another unsuspecting school district.

Within weeks of leaving Nebraska, Kluck was hired to teach and coach football in La Porte, Tex., a school district of nearly 7,500 students south of Houston.

Early in the first month of school, Kluck invited a student, 13-year-old Justin Kelly, to his home, supposedly to help hook up a dryer. Once they were alone, Kluck began massaging the boy's shoulders, legs and thighs, then began groping under his shorts. Kluck offered him money for sex, which the teen refused.

The scene was repeated a few weeks later after Kluck convinced Justin's parents, Kim and Don Shrum, that he needed to see Justin about an incident at school. Again he began touching Justin after they got to Kluck's apartment and, again, Justin rebuffed him.

For two months, Kluck would call Justin at home repeatedly or pull him out of class to talk to him, or give him massages in his empty classroom. "At first, I thought he was just kind of joking around," said Justin, now 18. "But then it got to the point where I didn't know what to do."

He tried avoiding Kluck, ducking out of homeroom as soon as the bell rang. But he still had to go to class, and he had to see him every day at football practice because Kluck was the coach. "I just remember being extremely, extremely uncomfortable."

Justin didn't want to tell anyone, though, out of fear of reprisals from Kluck and other teachers. "I thought I'd have to go back to school and see him every day."

Justin's mother and stepfather didn't realize what was happening for weeks. "As a parent, you're a little flattered that they're paying attention to your child," Kim Shrum said of Kluck's visits and calls.

Then the family started getting hang-up calls, prompting them to install a caller identification service. That's when they discovered that it was Kluck who was making the calls.

When they asked Justin about the calls over the Thanksgiving holiday, their son finally told his parents of Kluck's advances. "I didn't have a clue how serious it was until I told my Mom," Justin said.

The family spent that weekend deciding what to do: Should Don Shrum confront Kluck at his apartment? Should they go to the superintendent? Or should they go directly to the police?

The following Monday, they went to see La Porte Superintendent John Sawyer who, after seeing the evidence of Kluck's calls and hearing Justin's story, called Kluck out of class and suspended him with pay while the allegations were checked out.

Despite assurances that Justin's name would not be revealed, Kim Shrum says attorneys for the teacher's union were soon questioning Justin's teammates about him. Going to school became a difficult experience for Justin, as each day he walked the halls unsure how to react to teasing from classmates and cold stares from teachers.

In March 1995, a grand jury handed down an indictment against Kluck. After initially denying the accusations, Kluck pleaded guilty to two felony counts of indecency with a child. Under a plea bargain, Kluck was placed on 10 years' probation and had to give up his teaching certificate.

It was during the criminal investigation that Justin's family learned of the complaints about Kluck in Nebraska, largely due to the work of Det. David Huckabee of the La Porte Police Department.

"I was just amazed at how many people were involved to let this guy back out on the street," Kim Shrum said.

The family is now suing the Elwood, Neb. School District and Superintendent David Wade for allowing Kluck to leave Elwood with a clean record. The district's administrators "ignored their duties as educators to protect students from a teacher with known deviant tendencies," the suit claims.

"What they did or what they failed to do directly affected my child for the rest of his life," said Kim Shrum. "My whole family will never be the same. We were absolutely miserable for a year with the heartache and pain that it caused."

The trial is scheduled to begin in December.

Elwood school officials are not talking about the lawsuit, but legal documents hint that the school district may have been worried because officials had not strictly followed protocol when they notified Kluck they wouldn't renew his contract.

Still, the deal Kluck forged with the district was stunning. The school district allowed Kluck to remove unflattering information from his personnel file, provided him with a letter that emphasized his positive qualities as a teacher, and promised they would make equally positive recommendations if anyone phoned to inquire about him.

"It sticks in my craw to write him a 'generally' positive recommendation," wrote Wade, the superintendent, in a memo to the school board in March 1994. At the same time, Wade wrote he'd been reassured "that by reading between the lines, most administrators would be reluctant to hire him."

Not so, said La Porte Superintendent John Sawyer and Barney Iles, the La Porte administrator who hired Kluck.

"There's nothing [in the letter] that would have raised an alarm," Sawyer said. "I was extremely unhappy to find out that there was information that I felt we should have been given about a prospective employee that might have kept some of my students from being hurt."

Iles said he called Elwood administrators twice to ask about Kluck, but they never returned the calls. With the start of football practice less than a week away, and with favorable recommendations from Kluck's earlier teaching jobs, Iles hired him.

"This superintendent knew there was a problem," Sawyer said, "and I take offense at any professional who doesn't put the best interests of students ahead of any other consideration."

Said Kim Shrum: "When you're dealing with people's lives, and the lives of their children, how can you assume they'll read between the lines?"

From outward appearances, Justin, now a student at a Houston-area community college, seems to have put the incident aside. With his years at La Porte behind him, the number of immediate friends who associate him with Kluck has dwindled.

But Justin still sees a therapist and, he said, "there's always some period in the day when I think about" the assaults and their aftermath.

He does not regret coming forward, though. Worse than what happened to him, Justin said, was his fear that one of his two younger brothers might have met up with Kluck when they started school at La Porte Junior High.

He wishes others had shared such concern.

"What if the first person had put their foot down?" he asked. "How many people could have been saved?"

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