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Published in Print: December 9, 1998, as 'Passing the Trash' by School Districts Frees Sexual Predators To Hunt Again

'Passing the Trash' by School Districts Frees Sexual Predators To Hunt Again

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Sexual abuse of students is rarely a passing fancy, and for some schoolhouse predators, it becomes a way of life. Left unchecked, they may leave a trail of molestation that stretches across many years and countless students' lives.

For some of these repeat offenders, finding a new job is the best way to stay one step ahead of their pasts. Some move on before raising suspicion, while others depart only after accusations against them have flared.

It is no secret in education circles that these itinerant abusers, often called "mobile molesters," are abetted by school officials who let them quietly slip away when allegations arise. This practice of "passing the trash" has attracted rising criticism in recent years from politicians, other policymakers, the public, and the press.

When a case involves crimes by someone accused of similar acts elsewhere, hard questions are likely to arise about how and why that history was suppressed or overlooked.

"That's when all hell breaks loose," said Paul Longo, who retired last month after 10 years as the director of the professional-practices division of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

But as familiar as this phenomenon has become, it is far from being eradicated. Despite policymaking aimed at curbing the problem in recent years, school employees accused of abusing students are still likely to have faced similar allegations in the last place they worked. Often their new employers remain in the dark until it is too late.

"We've had a period of publicity and heightened concern about this, and states have done all kinds of things about fingerprinting and criminal-background checks," said W. Richard Fossey, the associate dean of the college of education at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. "But we still haven't gotten it under control."

Observers doubt that the picture will brighten any time soon, moreover, given the teacher shortages that are widely expected in the coming years.

"The problem is going to get worse and not better," said David Brom, a Minnesota principal who faced criticism this year for writing a positive reference for a teacher who was later convicted of having sex with a female student. "We're going to have these last-minute needs to fill, and if the crunch is on to get people into the classroom, it's very difficult to take the time we need to really check."

Problem's Roots Are Complex

A variety of factors conspire to let teachers and other school staff members who molest students become someone else's problem. Chief among them are:

  • The failure of districts to detect and verify sexual abuse, which usually occurs in private and may be denied by the victims themselves;
  • Agreements by districts to keep silent about allegations in exchange for the resignations, without a fight, of accused employees;
  • Uneven reporting of alleged misconduct by administrators to their superiors and by districts to their states;
  • Insufficiently stringent policing of the profession at the state level; and
  • Questionable recruitment practices by districts, some of which fail to ask the right questions of past employers or to seek any personal references at all.

The origin of some of these shortcomings resides in the nature of the crime itself. Sexual contact with students may be hard to verify, and some forms of it may not even be illegal. As a result, it is not uncommon for school systems to lack the proof they feel is needed to fire an employee suspected of sexual involvement with students.

Facing the prospect of costly and risky court fights, some districts cut deals. Such agreements vary, but in many cases they entail keeping silent about accusations as long as an employee resigns.

"When you think about it from the board's perspective, their immediate problem and responsibility is for the children in their district," said Julie Underwood, the general counsel for the National School Boards Association. "I can understand how some districts choose to do the expedient thing."

These agreements have come under growing attack in recent years as troubling stories have emerged about mobile repeat offenders.

In California, for example, a regulation adopted several years ago requires districts to inform state investigators if an employee resigns amid allegations of wrongdoing--irrespective of any agreement to keep such information confidential.

And in Michigan, a 1996 law expressly forbids any deal to suppress information about unprofessional conduct by employees or expunge it from personnel records.

Still, experts say, strong incentives remain for districts to reach closed-door accommodations with sex offenders that by their very nature are never open to public scrutiny.

"We don't know how many of them there are," Mr. Fossey said of such deals. "You don't know about them unless the thing blows up."

Deal Prompts Outrage

That is essentially what occurred in 1994 after a high school band director in Miami was accused of sexually abusing female musicians, including one student who fatally shot herself in 1992, allegedly because of the relationship.

It soon emerged that the teacher, George Crear III, had been accused of similar wrongdoing at his previous job in Flint, Mich., but had left quietly in 1987 after reaching a settlement in which the 26,000-student district agreed to keep the allegations quiet. This news did not sit well in either Miami or Flint.

"People up here were just outraged," said Daniel W. Stamos, an assistant district attorney for Genessee County, Mich., who prosecuted Mr. Crear in 1997.

As it turned out, a Miami jury acquitted Mr. Crear in February 1997 of charges that he had sexually abused a 15-year-old band member at the same time that he was having an affair with her mother.

But in November of last year, he was convicted in Michigan on five counts of sexually assaulting a Flint girl, starting when she was 13, in 1983 and 1984. The 48-year-old educator, who has repeatedly denied the charges against him, has appealed his conviction.

The charges that led to Mr. Crear's deal to leave Flint arose in 1987, when two college students alleged that he had molested them seven years earlier. Because of the statute of limitations, authorities determined that it was too late to file criminal charges.

Eight years later, after learning about the Miami charges, another young woman told Michigan authorities that Mr. Crear had also had sex with her in middle school. It was for abusing this student that Mr. Crear was convicted and sentenced last year to life in prison.

Current school officials in Flint, including the district's lawyer, superintendent, and human resources director, declined to discuss the case. But some former school board members say they now regret settling with Mr. Crear.

"Looking back, that was the wrong thing to do," said Helene Streich, who served on the board from 1981 to 1989. "Maybe if we had done something differently, we could have saved a life."

Mr. Crear's case was the major impetus for the 1996 Michigan law barring such agreements. Harold J. Voorhees, an outgoing Republican state representative from Kent County who sponsored the measure, said the law sent a message to educators that the public does not want them to "cover for each other."

"There is this mentality of protecting the system rather than the children," Mr. Voorhees said. "I wanted to break that system."

Tough Decisions

Even if they don't reach explicit agreements to keep quiet, many school officials remain reluctant to pass along potentially damaging information about former employees--often at the urging of school lawyers. The issue is complicated by the subjectivity inherent in the standard of proof school officials use to determine whether an allegation is substantiated.

Disclosure became an issue in Kentucky earlier this year, after a 28-year-old teacher in Henry County was arrested in June on charges of sexually abusing two 14-year-old female students.

It turned out that the teacher, Matthew B. Clark, had left the nearby Jefferson County district, which includes Louisville, after facing charges in 1996 that he had fondled two girls in class. A grand jury there declined to indict him, though, and an independent district investigation was inconclusive, district officials say.

"We would have to find the kind of evidence that would allow us to defend ourselves against an employee," said Wayne Eckels, the district's executive director of human relations. "There just wasn't enough there to have any shot of doing anything with it."

Before hiring Mr. Clark, school officials in the 2,100-student Henry County system called his last school and were told nothing of the allegations, they say. Soon afterward, though, the district independently learned of the charges, and when specifically asked, Jefferson County officials confirmed them. By then, Mr. Clark had a contract with Henry County, and remained in the classroom until his arrest.

"I couldn't dismiss someone based on something he'd been charged with," Henry County Superintendent Robert Wagoner said. The district did fire Mr. Clark after his arrest, a decision he is appealing. He has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges, which are pending.

In Jefferson County, officials say that voluntarily disclosing the earlier charges would have invited a lawsuit. "If you can't prove it, then you can't hold somebody responsible," said Carolyn Meredith, the director of employee relations for the 96,000-student district. "There are many employers who have been sued based on the reference they provide."

Lawsuits Rarely Succeed

Concerned about such litigation, many school lawyers have been urging their clients since the 1980s to adopt policies of limited or no disclosure about past employees. Some evidence suggests, however, that these worries may be exaggerated.

In a recent nationwide study of the issue, Texas researcher Fredric J. Hartmeister found only a single case in which a teacher had successfully sued an administrator for defamation based on information provided to a prospective employer. The case, decided in Maine in 1986, centered on a teacher's instructional performance and did not involve sexual-misconduct allegations.

Mr. Hartmeister, an assistant professor of education at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, also found that many states were taking steps to address the issue. As of August 1997, 26 states had adopted laws aimed at protecting public employers from defamation suits in cases where they provide good-faith responses to requests for information about employees. Most of the laws have been enacted or modified in the 1990s in response to several highly publicized defamation cases in the 1980s, Mr. Hartmeister found.

Even in states without such laws, courts have traditionally applied the common-law doctrine of "qualified privilege" to school administrators who pass along factual information in good faith, Mr. Hartmeister said. He argues that districts should take a more open stance toward disclosing their former employees' histories.

"We as public-sector educators are abrogating our ethical responsibilities to our students," Mr. Hartmeister, a former elementary school principal, argued. "Because of our fear of defamation, we have overreacted."

References Unreliable

When employees leave amid allegations of misconduct, some school officials don't just keep quiet. They sing the employees' praises in letters of reference designed to help them move on.

That kind of glowing recommendation was at the heart of a California Supreme Court ruling last year that chastised administrators for sugarcoating an employee's past.

In that case, a student sued administrators in three districts that had previously employed a middle school vice principal who molested her, as well as the Merced County school system in which the abuse occurred. The administrators wrote letters unreservedly recommending the educator without mentioning that he had repeatedly been investigated for alleged improprieties with students, and had been forced to leave at least two of the three earlier districts.

The vice principal was charged with molesting two girls, ages 10 and 13, while working in the Livingston Union district in Merced County. He later pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count, and the 13-year-old sued.

The parties in the case differed on how serious the earlier allegations were and how much the administrators knew about them. But the key issue before the California high court last year was whether they were obligated to present the full picture of the educator's qualifications.

Siding with the plaintiff, the court ruled in January 1997 that the girl's suit, which was settled last spring without a trial, could go forward.

"These representations were false and misleading in light of defendants' alleged knowledge of charges of [the employee's] repeated sexual improprieties," the court concluded.

Letters of reference also became an issue in Minnesota this year after the arrest of a high school teacher in the St. Paul suburb of Norwood Young America. Robert Pannier, 30, was convicted in August of having sex with a 15-year-old female student at his home in January after calling in sick.

It quickly surfaced that Mr. Pannier had been cited for inappropriate behavior with students in other nearby districts before arriving at Norwood Young America Central High School in 1996, including one in which two administrators wrote him positive recommendations.

'Legal Quagmire'

Mr. Brom, who was the principal of a school in Mendota Heights where Mr. Pannier worked in 1994-95, acknowledged making no mention in a recommendation letter of his warnings to the teacher about such conduct as profanity and "jokes of a sexual or vulgar nature."

But the principal, who has since moved to another district, said he invited prospective employers in the letter to call him for more information, which he said should have been a clue. He said he never received any such calls.

"What it amounts to is buyer beware," he said.

Alarmed by the Pannier case, Minnesota lawmakers last spring asked a task force of state officials and representatives of statewide education organizations to report on ways to address the problems it raised.

Late last month, the group recommended that the state provide districts with immunity from liability for releasing personnel data about former employees, as long as it is done "in good faith and with due care." The task force also called for creating an easily accessible database with school employees' job and licensure histories, as well as a uniform application form for employment in districts statewide.

Becky Kelso, a Democratic state representative from Shakopee who co-sponsored the bill that created the task force, said lawmakers had hit on few other options for addressing the issue.

Vol. 18, Issue 15, Pages 16-17

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