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Policing The Profession

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Fingerprint background checks generate the bulk of OPP's caseload.

Wilson's power to decide the fate of teachers does not go unchecked. A nine-member committee of educators hears appeals of his rulings. Such panels are not common--most states simply appoint a hearing officer. But it is hailed by both the state teachers' union and Wilson, who views the panel's oversight as a helpful reality check. "I think I have my pulse on education as much as anyone else," he says. "I have a Ph.D. in education, I volunteer in the schools, and my wife is a teacher. But I'm still not in the classroom every single day, confronting the problems. I know if someone wanted to take away my license as a lawyer, I'd want nine people there who are practicing, who are there every day, and who are faced with the decisions that I face."

Fingerprint background checks generate the bulk of OPP's caseload. In 1992, the state legislature made such checks required for out-of-state hires and certificate applicants--a total of about 25,000 a year. Then, in 1996, lawmakers ordered a one-time fingerprinting of school personnel with regular access to children--42,000 people in all. They also agreed to require background checks of teachers who moved to a new district more than two years after their last fingerprinting.

Thanks in large part to the 1996 law, OPP last year sent 75,000 sets of fingerprints to the FBI's fingerprint-processing facility in Clarksburg, West Virginia. There, staff trained in the Henry classification system--a sort of Dewey decimal system where the telltale whorls, loops, and arches of the finger's skin are assigned numeric values--determine if the prints match any of the roughly 30 million prints from arrest records filed by local, state, or federal law-enforcement agencies. If there's a match, the FBI forwards the individual's rap sheet to OPP.

Such background checks rarely turn up monsters with mile-long rap sheets. But occasionally they do: In 1994, OPP discovered that a certificate applicant was wanted by California police on 30 counts of juvenile rape.

More frequently, the FBI returns a rap sheet with garden-variety arrests and convictions. The state has the power to withhold certificates from individuals convicted within the past 10 years of crimes that could, according to state board rules, "materially and substantially impair" the teacher's classroom performance. The decision to exercise that power, however, is Wilson's call. He must consider whether the conviction is for a years-old youthful indiscretion--a college arrest for drunk and disorderly conduct, for example--or a more serious crime with the potential to harm people or property. He must also weigh mitigating factors and motivations for the crime.

Nore and Wilson dismiss the convictions on most rap sheets as inconsequential. But they open investigations at times to make sure there are no hidden threats. A conviction for a domestic disturbance, for example, seems like it should have little bearing on a teacher's classroom fitness. But when OPP staff track down police reports and court proceedings, they sometimes discover the conviction was the culmination of a plea bargain. The original charge: child abuse.

When I came to this agency, I had never had a bad experience in school.

Kathy Haslett,
Office of Professional Practices,
investigator

In 1997, OPP closed 3,500 cases generated from fingerprinting. Office staff hired as part of the 1996 law handle most of the paperwork on these investigations, tracking down arrest records and court dispositions. The agency's newest investigator, Linda Harrison, handles many of the more sophisticated cases originating from a rap sheet as well as cases stemming from the certification process. She was the agency's secretary and a state education department employee for nearly 30 years before Nore and Wilson promoted her in 1995 and gave her a year's in-house training to become a full-fledged investigator.

Nore and two other veteran investigators, Stan Burczyk and Kathy Haslett, look into most of the cases that originate with a complaint filed by district or regional superintendents or private-school heads. (Unlike investigative divisions in states such as Florida and California, OPP cannot act on accusations from parents or the general public.) Burczyk is an ex-cop who logged 21 years with police in Hammond, Indiana, including six years on the sex-crimes unit, before joining OPP in 1991. He deals with much of the casework in the eastern part of the state from an office in Spokane. Haslett, hired in 1993, came to OPP from the investigative team of the state's bureau and labor agency, but she knows kids. She has been a foster mother for nearly 20 years and is a regular volunteer child advocate with a nonprofit social services organization. She lives and works in Vancouver, on the state's southern border just north of Portland, Oregon.

Their investigations are not the stuff of Dragnet. Indeed, OPP's job is not to find out whodunit but to determine if something bad has even happened. OPP uses some of the tricks of the law-enforcement trade--Wilson wields subpoena power, for example--but investigators don't go on stake-outs or run DNA samples through crime labs. And in cases where police or local prosecutors are involved, OPP puts its investigations on hold so as not to muck up law-enforcement work.

Over the years, Nore, Haslett, and Burczyk have investigated teachers guilty of some bizarre, if not laughable, behavior. There was the teacher who embezzled student-council funds and the principal who stole televisions from his own school. There was the teacher who forged a parent's signature on a student's federally mandated special education plan and the administrator run amok with a district credit card.

"When I came to this agency, I had never had a bad experience in school," Haslett says. "To me, teachers were on a pedestal. And when I found out some of the things taking place, I thought they were isolated incidents, that these things don't really happen in every school. I was wrong."

The most outrageous accusations often involve sexual misconduct. Roughly 60 percent of complaints filed with OPP by local school officials focus on sexual behavior, from an inappropriate comment--"You look great in tight sweaters"--to fondling or intercourse. These are often the most difficult cases, and media attention almost always makes them supercharged. Newspapers across the state fax OPP weekly with requests for copies of complaints filed from school districts in their area.

Although every set of allegations is different, OPP's sexual-misconduct caseload shows some patterns.

Although every set of allegations is different, OPP's sexual-misconduct caseload shows some patterns. Allegations of pedophilia are fairly rare. More often than not, men are the subject of charges of inappropriate physical contact. And more often than not, the alleged victim is a girl about 14, 15, or 16 years old. Girls this age, Nore explains, are maturing physically and are more vulnerable to sexual advances because they are beginning to rebel against their parents and keep secrets.

Often, sexual abusers target kids with low self-esteem. Such children are more vulnerable than a student-council president and more likely to turn to an adult for friendship or help. Also, if such children tell others about the abuse, they are also less likely to be believed because they are "problem" children.

Ironically, what a miscreant teacher does to win children's confidence and "groom" them for sex is often indistinguishable from what an excellent teacher does. Both reach out to students, show an interest in their problems, and try to build their self-esteem. Often, they devote personal time to helping the student: A math teacher might offer private tutoring, while a soccer coach might offer to drive a favorite player to a tryout in another town. Mary Letourneau, for one, was a standout teacher who was well-known for making special efforts with kids. "It's very difficult to look at two such teachers and know the difference," says Wilson. "One deservedly should be the teacher of the year and has probably done this time and time again and reached a lot of kids. That other teacher is doing exactly the same thing, but there's a different, darker motivation that you don't know."

Sometimes, the true motivation escapes notice for a long time. OPP has opened a number of sexual-abuse cases after adults have claimed they were molested or had a sexual relationship with a teacher 10 or 15 years ago. In a few instances of teacher-student sex, the girl has gone on to marry her teacher/lover, only to later report him to authorities after discovering that he was sleeping with his current students.

The allegations of one student usually don't translate to rock-solid proof of wrongdoing, so investigators always look for other victims. The clues surface in unpredictable ways: Maybe a colleague of the accused teacher remembers him lavishing attention on another girl last year, or maybe a yearbook photo from a few years back shows the teacher leaning in a bit too close to a girl whose long, blond hair looks just like the alleged victim's.

Nore handles most of the high-profile child-abuse cases. The key to these cases, she says, is always the victim's sworn statement. To get this, Nore has to persuade the girl to say out loud the unspeakable things done to her by a teacher or a coach or an administrator. That's not always easy. Sometimes, girls don't want to talk because they think they love the teacher and see nothing wrong with their relationship. Others are too frightened to talk. They have been threatened, or they are wracked with guilt and think they'll get in trouble.

Nore frequently travels to victims' homes to interview them. The kitchen table is one of her favorite spots for such frank talk. It is the home's center of gravity, a place where a child usually feels at ease. Normally, Nore opens her interviews with small talk, coaxing the girl into easy conversation with tidbits--her hobbies and interests, likes and dislikes--that she has gleaned from earlier conversations with the parents.

When the discussion moves to the allegations, she uses explicit language--words like breasts, penis, intercourse, and the like--so that the taboo is broached before the girl tells her tale. Most of all, Nore tries to convey to the child that she is someone to be trusted.


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