Friday, July 13, 2007
Inappropriate touching. Soliciting minors over the Internet. Sex with students.there's not a lot of good reasons to hug kids. It's very sad, but that's where we are. It puts you in a situation where you are at risk,"
Utah teachers have been charged with a rash of sex offenses in recent weeks.
Data collected by the State Office of Education's Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission — the ones who investigate alleged teacher misconduct — indicate a history of such problems. In nine of the past 15 years, sexual misconduct was the No. 1 reason for teachers losing a license, accounting for more than half — and during one year, 86 percent — of the lot.The State Office of Education says its system of preventing bad guys from becoming teachers, and punishing them once they do bad things, is better than ever.However, it still has flaws. Mainly, how do you detect someone is going to hurt students — even if it's just repeated off-color or flirty comments or borderline inappropriate touching and text-messaging, which some say is an increasing problem these days — before they've ever done anything, or, perhaps, been called on misbehavior?
A national problem
Five Utah schoolteachers have been charged with sexual abuse of students in the past few months.Such allegations are a national issue. Just this month, an Alabama high school teacher was charged with having sex with at least four students and allegedly involving one in a plot to kill her husband.
A national researcher questions whether the nation's school leaders are vigilant enough in pursuing alleged offenses.
A 2004 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education found, in many cases, that school leaders often failed to turn over cases to authorities.
The report prepared by Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Hofstra University in Huntington, N.Y., examined scores of studies in the document titled "Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature.
One revealed that in 225 cases of admitted sexual abuse by educators in New York, no teacher was reported to authorities and only 1 percent lost their licenses. Of those who received a negative consequence, 15 percent were fired or not rehired, and 20 percent got a formal reprimand or suspension. Another 25 percent faced basically no consequences for their actions and nearly 39 percent left the district with positive recommendations and/or retirement packages in place.
"The studies, which include documentation of the consequences of educator sexual misconduct, primarily focus on what happens after allegations are made. Most document the ways in which schools and districts fail to remove abusers from the classroom," Shakeshaft said in an interview with the Desert Morning News.
She found that elementary school abusers are often abnormally high-achieving professionals with a "disproportionate" number of awards compared to non-abusing teachers. "For them, being a good educator is the path to children, especially those who abuse elementary and younger middle school students."
At the late middle and high school level, educator abusers may not have won a lot of awards and the contact is "somewhat less premeditated and planned and more often opportunistic, a result of bad judgment or a misplaced sense of privilege," Shakeshaft said.
Despite Utah's rash of pending sexual abuse charges, the trend is by no means on the way up. The proportion of sex misconduct cases in terms of licensing revocations waxes and wanes between 1992 and 2005 — from 19 percent in 1999 to 86 percent of cases in 1993.Some of the documented actions include:
• 2000: An Alpine and Provo district teacher was charged with two misdemeanor drug offenses, stored pornography on his school computer and threw firecrackers out his school windows at students.
Also, a North Sanpete District teacher exposed himself to female students in his home and yard as they walked home from school.
• 2001: A Davis District teacher had continually videotaped and photographed students despite directives to stop, made inappropriate comments to students and was charged with aggravated sexual abuse for "inappropriate touching."
• 2002: An Iron District teacher had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old student.
• 2005: A Salt Lake City teacher solicited and had sexually explicit conversations with minors over the Internet and had sex with a minor — at least once on school grounds. State and federal felony charges resulted.
These teachers are hardly the norm. Utah has more than 21,000 schoolteachers. About 100 are investigated for misconduct each year, said attorney and commission executive secretary Carol Lear. Of them, between six and 31 lose licenses.
"The public should know that by and large, we have an excellent teaching force, a safe force, and these people who do constitute a threat or risk to students are being removed," said Michael McCoy, Utah Education Association general counsel. But when it comes to pedophiles, he says they cannot be trusted. "Let's make sure they never come back."
Still, data show some teachers who lose their licenses for sexual misconduct are getting the state's blessing to return to the classroom.
A Carbon schoolteacher, for example, after having a sexual relationship with a female student. And an Alpine teacher, after accessing pornography on his school computer and storing numerous pornographic videotapes in the school's ceiling.
The process for getting a license back appears tough, but 37 teachers — six ousted for sexual misconduct — apparently have cleared those hurdles in the past 15 years. The Carbon teacher's sexual relationship was with an adult education student, said Lear, director of school law and legislation for the State Office of Education
The Alpine man's pornographic proclivities apparently weren't deemed to put students at risk.
"Every psychologist I've talked to for eight-plus years says there are different schools of thought about pornography. Some believe it is progressive," said Lear, "and the next thing you do is you want to touch a girl, or touch a boy. Other psychologists and researchers believe it's just a hobby, like golf."
Some also say it's an addiction. But if it is, and a teacher has successfully battled an addiction such as alcoholism, then he or she could be OK to put back into the classroom after counseling, Lear said.
But one reinstated professional has reoffended. A Box Elder teacher lost his license earlier this year after a lewdness arrest. He originally lost his license in 1991, after an arrest for solicitation of a sex act, and got it back two years later.Lear said the recent lewdness offense didn't involve a student.
"I don't want to defend their conduct, but frankly, I know of congressmen given those charges and church leaders who have had those problems," said McCoy, who for 30 years has represented teachers accused of misconduct. "The issue seems to me, you send them to a good psychologist . . . you get the best report you can as to whether this person is a risk to the safety of their students or colleagues."
He believes sometimes teachers get a bad rap.
For instance, a teacher he once represented was accused of grabbing a girl's buttocks. After a grueling investigation, McCoy said administrators concluded the girl made up the offense in retaliation against her getting kicked out of class. The case was dropped. In a current case, he says he thinks a teacher accused of inappropriate talks with students is no predator.
"I tend to have them submit to psychological testing, and what I find is they're not predators, but they're immature and, males especially, flattered girls find them interesting," McCoy said. "Treating them as if these people are grooming these young females for some illicit relationship — my own judgment is most of the time, that never happens. They're ceasing to be the adult in the situation."
Lear said she feels the process is as tight and fair as it can be, considering the inexact science of predicting behavior."Is it risk free? No," Lear said. "But if we had teachers banging down the doors, crowding our hallways, I think we would have the luxury of saying, 'You will never teach again.' But we aren't in that kind of situation."
Checks and balances
Utah is short on teachers. The state is recruiting newcomers. If they agree to classroom life, they'll have to jump through hoops.
Every new hire and others with significant unsupervised access to students must have a fingerprint background check through the multistate Bureau of Criminal Identification and the FBI.But background checks have been required for only about 10 years. And when the law was enacted, it came with a condition: Teachers already in the classroom wouldn't have to submit to one unless they let their licenses lapse, Lear said.
Now, student teachers are getting fingerprinted in college before they take apprenticeships. And the state is getting a faster turnaround time with a new computerized system, easing the BCI's fingerprint processing backlog.
Those with a sex offense aren't going to become teachers, Lear said. Shakeshaft, who researched national data regarding teacher sexual misconduct, says increased media attention has brought improvements, but states could be more vigilant.
"In the past, people who are responsible for disciplining teachers or revoking licenses or firing them are educators themselves. They were likely to say, 'They probably didn't mean to' or 'It isn't as bad as it seems, he shouldn't lose his whole career because of this.' "Lear agrees Utah's past practices haven't been perfect but says they have improved.Michael Johnsen, superintendent for Tooele School District, said most leaders try to follow up on anything they hear regarding teacher misconduct — "even if it's iffy."Districts are required to report to UPPAC unprofessional conduct or incompetence resulting in more than a week's suspension and "immoral behavior."
All licensing actions are forwarded to a national database, NASDTEC Education Information Clearinghouse, accessible by districts nationwide.
Some districts have crafted policies spelling out what teachers can and cannot do with students in hopes of narrowing what could be perceived as gray area.
Alpine School District requires a principal's approval for teachers to meet with students after hours and off campus. Educators also must avoid being alone with a student unless necessary for counseling or disciplining. Principals go over the policy with staff every year, and it's part of new teachers' orientation, said Gary Seastrand, Alpine assistant superintendent.
Lear says that kind of training is like liability insurance.
But there's no proof all districts are doing it, or that they have policies like Alpine's. The State Office of Education gives training to about half the school districts but doesn't require it.But the State Office of Education is drafting a rule requiring teachers take an ethics class to retain their licenses. Lear envisions a June 2007 effective date.
The office is also "starting to make inroads" with prosecutors to possibly include surrendering a teaching license as part of plea bargains in sex abuse cases, said Jean Hill, State Office of Education attorney and UPPAC investigator.
"If you want them in jail, we don't want them in the classroom," Hill said.
More could be done, Shakeshaft found in her research.
Parents and districts should have access to a national registry of sexually abusive eductors. Utah has a version of that in its computerized teacher database, but parents can't view it. However, parents can ask the state for a list of teachers whose licenses have been suspended or revoked. It's public information.
"I tell teachers in this day and age, there's not a lot of good reasons to hug kids. It's very sad, but that's where we are. It puts you in a situation where you are at risk," said Cal Evans, executive director for compliance and special programs in Jordan School District. "One person's hug is another person's sexual battery."