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

Sunday, October 31, 1999

By Jane Elizabeth Zemel, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Whatever the new millennium brings for Rhode Island school superintendent Michael Jolin, it's got to be better than the past year.

  Former elementary school principal John W. Card, right, leaves and arraignment last November in Warwick R.I., at which he was held on 48 counts of child molestation. In one year's time, West Warwick superintendent Michael Jolin dealt with Card and two teachers accused of sexual misconduct in his 3,200-student district. (Rachel Ritchie, The Providence Journal)

In June, Jolin saw one of his elementary school principals handed a 20-year suspended sentence for molesting a male student for more than seven years. The principal admitted to fondling and performing oral sex with the child.

Later that month, Jolin suspended a popular high school English teacher after two girls accused him of improper touching. The teacher had two days left before retirement. The district attorney's office did not file criminal charges in the case.

In August, Jolin dismissed a high school science teacher after one student's parents complained that the teacher had had an affair with their son. Police later found two other students who said they'd had sexual relationships with the teacher. Late last month, the teacher agreed to surrender her Rhode Island teaching certificate for life.

"My wish is that I could investigate these accusations and find them unsubstantiated," Jolin said in a recent interview, "but that didn't happen."

Jolin doesn't really believe his 3,200-student school district in West Warwick has any more bad teachers than any other district. So why the rash of investigations?

"I asked myself the same question," Jolin said. "Am I doing something differently?"

Perhaps it's Jolin's unusual background. He's a former police officer -- a job that helped him earn tuition for graduate school.

"I learned about investigations, interviewing," Jolin said. He added that another former job, as dean of students at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, gave him the opportunity to "listen to all sides and make decisions."

The fact that he's only been superintendent for four years makes him more impartial, he said. "I am not a superintendent who has been in this district all my life. I'm not the typical superintendent who moves his way up. I can see, in that case, how it would be hard to be objective. It's easier for me to focus on the facts."

Still, nothing quite prepared him for the events of the past year.

"I never thought I would spend so much time figuring out who to believe," he said.

Superintendents are in a difficult situation when it comes to handling teacher discipline, said Charles Keily, who was superintendent in Twiggs County, Ga. One of his teachers there was arrested for molestation, but the charges were dropped when the teacher agreed to resign. The teacher then got a job in a Florida school, where he again was accused of misconduct with a student. This time, the teacher lost his license.

"It is an unfortunate situation that the school community is in, because you're damned if you do and damned if you don't," he said. "If you abuse somebody's good name, then they come after you -- - and rightfully so. If you don't let it out, some folks get hurt."

Without an air-tight case, he said, "it's going to cost big money to prove your point and, for that reason, it's just really an unfortunate predicament."

In Rhode Island, Jolin said his district is revising policies related to teacher conduct, but acknowledged there's little instruction for educators in how to handle these cases.

"I know of no step-by-step lesson plans for superintendents -- when to be skeptical, who to believe," he said. Led by Jolin, the district conducted its own investigation of the three cases at the same time the attorney general's office was investigating. The dual investigations are conducted, Jolin said, because even if no charges are filed, Jolin may discipline or even fire the teacher. "We are not bound by police standards," he explained.

"I take these complaints very seriously and take the facts to wherever they lead. I try to keep an open mind, and recognize my responsibility to protect the students."

Three of the accusing students had to be moved from their schools, Jolin said. The district's insurance company is picking up the tuition and transportation costs.

While one of the teachers is considering an appeal of the suspension, Jolin said he feels confident in his decisions. However, there were protests by some teachers, who wore yellow armbands to school in support of two of the accused educators until Jolin told them to take them off.

But Jolin said he had the "full support" of the school board, and hasn't had a complaint from parents on how he's handled the teacher misconduct cases.

"If I ever pursued a false complaint and ruined a teacher's career, I don't think I could live with myself," he said.

Tom Ionitti, a West Warwick board member and former chairman, said he admired the way Jolin handled the three cases.

"I think it's courageous," said Ionitti, who's served on the board for six years. "There is so much latitude that a superintendent may have, and some guys just look the other way."

Ionitti and Jolin both believe that some school officials "look the other way" too often.

"I think that's the worst a school district can do," Ionitti said. "Shame on those districts that let that happen."

But after the past year, Jolin believes he knows why school officials might ignore an abusive teacher rather than taking action.

"It's the pain that it causes everyone," he said. "There's a lot of disbelief. It's just so hard."

Staff writer Steve Twedt contributed to this report.

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