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Dirty Secrets: More than 'a wink' needed to stop abuse

Tuesday, November 02, 1999

By Jane Elizabeth Zemel, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Last of a three-part series


When Dennis L. Bair, a music teacher in Burgettstown Area School District in Washington County, Pa., was convicted on two counts of indecent assault of a female student, state officials wanted to revoke his teaching license.

 
 

Bair "is a danger to the health, safety and welfare of the students," according to state Department of Education documents.

But four months later, lawyers for the state and for Bair reached an agreement: He would voluntarily surrender his teaching certificate, sparing him the more public, career-killing revocation process.

On June 30, 1998 -- two years and two months after Bair was charged with two counts of indecent assault in Washington County -- education officials accepted his surrender.

He served a month of weekends in the county jail and a 60-day probation program. But Bair, like other teachers who voluntarily give up their license to avoid revocation, can truthfully say to future employers that his license has never been revoked.

And while Pennsylvania officials will release reasons for revocations, they will not reveal details of a surrender. They will not tell a prospective employer, for example, that Matthew S. Guenther surrendered his license in 1997 because he was accused of showing pornographic movies and giving alcohol to eighth- and ninth-graders. Guenther was a German and English teacher in Exeter Township School District, Berks County.

If Lisa Centore of Cranston, R.I., applies for a teaching job in a faraway state, prospective employers might never that she gave up her Rhode Island teaching certificate last month after acknowledging she had sexual relationships with two male students.

While some critics say that kind of deal is a systemic flaw that helps bad teachers circulate, state officials say a surrender won't fool any potential employer.

 
  PG Online graphic:

Profile of pedophile

   
 

"When someone sees that a teacher has surrendered a license, it's just like a wink," said Carolyn D'Angelo, executive director of Pennsylvania's Professional Standards and Practices Commission. "They know something was going on. [The teacher] just didn't walk in and say, here, take my license. There was a reason."

Still, said Charol Shakeshaft, a Hofstra University professor who studies teacher misconduct, this is the sort of "back-door stuff" that needs to be eliminated from the discipline process.

She and others who have studied teacher misconduct gave the Post-Gazette their recommendations on how to keep bad teachers out of the classroom forever:

Earlier, faster fingerprinting for everyone. Both federal and state fingerprinting checks should be taken both when teachers file for certification, and when they apply for a job, said Douglas F. Bates, an attorney with the Utah State Office of Education. And a quicker process should be developed -- the checks now take four to 10 weeks in some cases.

Bates also recommends a fingerprint "tickler file" that would alert officials when any teacher is arrested.

No statute of limitations. Because children are extremely reluctant to report abuse by any adult, in some cases it takes years before an abused student is emotionally mature enough to bring charges against the abuser. Several states now have statutes of limitations that could prevent an accused teacher from being charged.

Give school employers access to a registry of child abuse reports or a list of registered sex offenders. Only about 20 states have access to a child abuse registry. Few states have public lists of registered sex offenders. Some of those lists can be found on the Internet at http://www.prevent-abuse-now.com/

Pennsylvania education officials currently are working on an Internet site that would list teachers who are disciplined.

Create a mandated, national data bank of teachers who have been disciplined. An Internet "bulletin board" managed by the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification contains a list of educators who have had any adverse action taken against them. But there's no requirement for states to make reports, and many incidents that occurred before 1984 are not included.

Require teacher applicants to disclose any arrests or outstanding warrants. Most background checks only reveal criminal convictions. That's why a middle school teacher in Tampa, Fla., who had been arrested and charged with sex offenses in Kentucky was able to circumvent the screening process. Kentucky officials in September finally caught up with the teacher, Steven Blane Herndon, after he'd been teaching agriculture classes at the Tampa school for a month. FBI fingerprint checks did not reveal that there was a warrant out for his arrest.

 
    Dirty Secrets,
Part III:

State education officials want legislators' help to end sexual abuse

Family's tragedy helped launch organization for victims

Dirty Secrets: Message from a pedophile

Dirty Secrets case file: Preston Barnes

Dirty Secrets case file: Anthony G. Bult

Dirty Secrets case file: Wally Love


Dirty Secrets,
Part II:

Dirty Secrets: Flawed system aids bad teachers


Dirty Secrets, Part I:

Dirty Secrets: Why sexually abusive teachers aren't stopped


Dirty Secrets: About the authors

Order your reprint of 'Dirty Secrets'

 
 

Another example: William L. Clark had gotten a job as principal at Plymouth (Vt.) Elementary School in 1994 when he applied for a Vermont driver's license. During their routine checks, motor vehicle officials discovered a two-year-old warrant against Clark in Alaska for child molestation. He was arrested immediately. On his application for the Vermont job, Clark had truthfully said he'd never been convicted of a crime.

To prevent incidents like that, Vermont applicants, beginning this month, will be asked if they have any outstanding warrants or arrests. Also, an Ohio legislator has introduced a bill that proposes using a private consulting firm to conduct background checks on teacher applicants.

The proposal by Sen. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, would cost teachers $100, rather than the current $15, and would include interviews with previous employers, a motor vehicle records check, a list of any civil lawsuits as well as a basic criminal background check.

"There is a growing concern here and across the country about teachers abusing kids," said Susan Wittstock, Hottinger's legislative aide.

Require teacher applicants to disclose prior dismissals. In about two dozen states, applicants don't have to tell prospective employers that they've been dismissed from a job. In Pennsylvania, applicants are asked about prior convictions, current charges, firing from a job in the last 10 years, or resigning from a job in the last 10 years to avoid being fired. Applicants who lie about their past can be disciplined or even fired.

Hold school officials responsible for writing accurate recommendations. In California and Oregon, it's a violation of the school code for a principal or any school official to write a false letter of recommendation in order to get rid of a bad teacher.

And, if there's an agreement to let the teacher resign, the school district is not supposed to write a letter at all. The only information they're allowed to reveal is the date the teacher was employed and the teacher's salary.

Even a state as aggressive as California has problems, though. At least twice in recent years, California teachers under investigation for sexual misconduct with students landed teaching jobs in neighboring Oregon.

Jonathan N. Parish resigned his teaching job in Santa Rosa, Calif., in 1994 after officials recommended revoking his license for making sexual overtures toward female students. When he applied to Oregon, Parish falsely stated there were no pending investigations against him.

Because the California case was under appeal, Parish's license was still valid and he was hired by a small school district in southern Oregon. Oregon officials caught up to him in 1996 when a newspaper reporter in California called to ask about his teaching status.

Similarly, Leroy Kelly agreed to resign his job teaching drama in Plumas County, Calif., in January 1992 after accusations that he'd touched his students in a sexual manner. While appealing a recommendation that his license be revoked, Kelly applied and was hired in Oregon after he lied on his application that he had never resigned a teaching position while under investigation. He was caught in 1996 when a parent in California tracked him down and reported him to Oregon officials.

Kris Wilson, a coordinator in the early education program at the University of Oregon, feels strongly about requirements to provide accurate recommendations, both as an educator and a mother.

Her daughter, Trenna, was abused at age 13 by her drama teacher. The teacher lost his license, but was able to find jobs in two other states because his past was not revealed, said Wilson, who tracked the teacher for a few years. "This needs to stop," she said.

Create a code of conduct. While many professionals have rules to guide them in their profession, many teachers don't -- or if they do, they don't know about it. Pennsylvania has a code of conduct, but it's not widely distributed to teachers. The code of conduct can be found on the Internet at http://www.pacode.com/secure/data/022/chapter235/chap235toc.html

Make it easier for victims to file lawsuits. A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, stipulates that school officials must have knowledge about the abuse before being held liable by students. This almost certainly has had a chilling effect on lawyers, who may refuse to take students' cases because they feel the ruling makes the case too difficult to win, according to Gretchen Myers, a St. Louis attorney. She currently is handling lawsuits filed by three former students abused by their teacher.

And although some huge dollar amounts have been awarded this year to abused students across the country, Myers said that because of the Gebser case, the awards quite likely will be reduced or overturned by appeals courts.

Provide better training for student teachers. Teachers are "mandated reporters" -- that is, they are required by law to report suspected child abuse.

The problem, said Shakeshaft, is that most teachers don't notice or don't report abuse by their own colleagues. "Teachers need to know how to see signs in other teachers," she said.

But it's a rare teachers college that includes this topic in the curriculum, or even discusses it informally. Penelope Earley, senior director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, said if the subject of teacher conduct comes up, it's usually in an elective seminar. "It's unlikely you're going to find a particular course" that educates prospective teachers about appropriate behavior.

Dr. W. Richard Fossey, associate dean of the college of education at Louisiana State University, is a leading researcher on teacher training and discipline. In his courses, he makes it clear that sex offenders can be found in the teaching community, and details the sex offender's personality.

"When I talk about the type of people who [abuse students], that's when I see the light bulb go off in their head," Fossey said. "They say, 'that very kind of guy was doing that very kind of thing when I was in school.' "

Frank discussions about sexual misconduct should be included in every student teacher's curriculum, say four professors at Charleston (S.C.) Southern University and the University of South Florida in Tampa.

Their research, published in the latest edition of "The Educational Forum," also recommends that all college education majors undergo an FBI background and a psychological screening to uncover any sexually abusive characteristics.

A student who's likely to become an abusive teacher may drop out of an education program "if they feel that college supervisors and school personnel are 'on alert' for such individuals," said Dr. Michael J. Berson, a South Florida professor and one of the report's authors.

Berson added, "We should impose the same level of scrutiny with [student teachers] as we do with teachers."

But officials at teachers colleges blame funding cuts and other mandates for the lack of education about teacher misconduct.

"A lot of us have been forced to cut education courses," said Dr. Mary Anne Lecos, director of teacher education at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "There's a feeling that there are too many education courses, and not enough in the subject area. Teacher preparation has been cut."

While Dr. Robert Shoop, professor of educational law at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., agrees that education schools have been squeezed by required courses, he believes that the topic of teacher conduct can be "infused" into every curriculum.

"Schools have a duty to do this," said Shoop, who conducts workshops nationwide on sexual abuse and harassment and has served as an expert witness on several teacher misconduct cases. "They are risk managers."

The topic of educator misconduct should be included in introduction courses, Shoop believes, and all future teachers should be required to take education law courses. But he doesn't see that happening.

"The people who are tailoring these [education] courses are in their 50s and haven't been in a classroom for years," said Shoop. "They don't understand the current issues."

But even if all the experts' recommendations are adopted, even if every legislative wish list comes true, the problem of sexual abuse of students will not vanish. Bad teachers can still use protection such as privacy laws to hide their past, said Jim Sheehan, former chief counsel for the Pennsylvania Department of Education and now general counsel to Gov. Ridge.

"We will never be able to take care of everything for everyone," he said. "The law protects everyone and also throws up roadblocks for us."

Scrutiny criticized

Intense scrutiny of educators' backgrounds have made some teacher organizations uncomfortable; they believe the climate would become ripe for witch hunts and false accusations.

"We frequently represent teachers who are accused by students or others and many times their records are cleared," said Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, "but their careers are ruined." He said he had no statistics on false-accusations cases handled by the PSEA.

While Keever noted there are no penalties for students who make false accusations against teachers, the University of Oregon's Kris Wilson believes aggressively pursuing bad teachers is worth the risk of an occasional false report.

"You damage a child, and you do it for a long, long time," she said. "I know it's damaging for a teacher to be falsely accused, but I can tell you, they can get over it.

"A child may never get over it."


Post-Gazette staff writer Steve Twedt contributed to this report. He can be reached at stwedt@post-gazette.com, or 412-263-1963.

Jane Elizabeth Zemel can be reached at jzemel@post-gazette.com, or 412-263-1510.



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