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Published in Print: October 24, 2007, as Calif. Teacher-Records Laws Help Hide Details in Cases of Sex-Related Misconduct

Calif. Rules Mask Details of Sex-Related Misconduct

Past misdeeds may be off-limits to other districts.

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More than 300 California educators had their teaching licenses revoked or suspended because of sex-related offenses from 2001 through 2005.

But you can’t tell that from the state’s enforcement records—at least not those available to the public.

While some of the most egregious sex abuse is flagged, state law allows many offenses to remain confidential in education records, even when teachers go to prison and register as sex offenders.

A Lingering Shame
How Project Unfolded
Part I:
Sex Abuse a Shadow Over U.S. Schools
Calif. Rules Mask Details of Sex-Related Misconduct
Part II:
Band Teacher’s Abuse Scars Family, Splits Community
Gender Affects Response to Teacher-Student Sex
Part III:
Efforts to Curb Educator Sex Abuse Seen as Weak
Signs of Improper Sexual Interest From Educators
Schoolhouse Sex-Abuse Suspects Face Serial Accusations

The lack of information reflects a system for disciplining teachers that, across the country, is often shrouded in secrecy. That makes it difficult for states to share valuable information about errant teachers, and allows some to find other jobs in the classroom.

In California alone, the Associated Press reviewed more than 2,000 cases in which teachers there were punished for misconduct. Among them were hundreds of cases classified as “general misconduct.”

The case of Tanda Rucker, a former college basketball star who taught and coached girls basketball at Encinal High School near Oakland, was one of those. After several teenagers each reported having a sexual relationship with Ms. Rucker, she pleaded no contest to 18 felony counts. She was sentenced to a year in jail and ordered to register as a sex offender.

Yet an official bulletin from California’s Commission on Teacher Credentialing reported only that Ms. Rucker’s teaching credential was revoked for misconduct under broad sections of state law that cover everything from theft to murder.

Dangerous Loophole

The AP’s review found dozens of similar cases, often involving pleas of no contest, a common legal agreement that allows a person to avoid a trial or civil liability, but still leads to conviction. California law also bars the credentialing commission from revealing the reason teachers who plead no contest lose their licenses.

It’s a dangerous loophole, says state Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, a Republican from Orange County.

“There is the possibility that one of these people could move to another jurisdiction, most likely another state, and you wouldn’t be able to find out their history,” says Mr. Spitzer, a former prosecutor and high school English teacher.

Here’s how it can happen: California submits information on teachers who lose their licenses to a national database. But because of California’s law, the state provides only limited details.

So officials in another state may find out that someone they want to hire had a problem in California, but it’s nearly impossible for them to learn more from education records.

Records Often Sealed

In some cases, school officials have only a one-year window to access California disciplinary records.

That came into play in 2002, after California granted a probationary license to Craig Kinder. He’d been forced out of a suburban St. Louis district amid accusations that he’d touched students inappropriately.

Mr. Kinder was acquitted on criminal charges, but California officials gave him a license only on the condition that he tell prospective employers about his past.

He didn’t do that when he applied at California’s Newport-Mesa Unified School District. And by the time district officials figured out he’d lied, the state—and the very California agency that required Mr. Kinder to disclose his history—had sealed his disciplinary records.

That made it tough to fire Mr. Kinder, says Lorri McCune, then the district’s assistant superintendent of human resources. “This to me was a gross miscarriage of their responsibility,” Ms. McCune says. “We had basically no recourse, which really made me sick.”

Read more about this series, "A Lingering Shame: Sexual Abuse of Students by School Employees." The collection includes a new Associated Press series on the issue, as well as special Education Week coverage.

Mr. Kinder eventually voluntarily surrendered his California license in 2003, after the Newport-Mesa district spent hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to force him out.

His attorney did not respond to messages left by the Associated Press.

Mary Armstrong, the state credentialing commission’s legal counsel, couldn’t discuss the Kinder case, but says her agency seals some disciplinary records because state law requires it.

“It’s a balance between the rights of a teacher who may be falsely accused,” she says, “and the rights of the public.”

Vol. 27, Issue 09, Page 19

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