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Policing The Profession

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OPP investigators view their jobs as fact-finding, but teachers and parents don't always see their probes so benignly.

As they talk, Nore watches the girl closely, reading her body language for any sign--a fidget, the head ducking in shame--that she's holding back key facts or passing along half-truths. Most of all, she studies the girl's eyes. Through years of investigations, she's learned that a person's eyes telegraph their emotions, their fears, their pain. The eyes, Nore believes, truly are the windows to the soul.

OPP investigators view their jobs as fact-finding, but teachers and parents don't always see their probes so benignly. When a beloved teacher faces an investigation for sexual misconduct, entire communities often rebel and talk of massive government conspiracies. "What constantly surprises me is that the public hasn't caught on to the fact that these people don't walk around in trench coats," Burczyk says.

Wilson catches much of the flak directed at OPP. His name and signature appear on every order to revoke, suspend, or deny a license. "I've gotten death threats," he says, "but the people who make death threats are never the ones that I'm worried about. If they're saying it, chances are they're not going to follow through." As a precaution, Wilson and Nore have devised a system to alert staff to trouble brewing in behind-closed-door meetings with office visitors. Should either of them buzz and ask for a cup of coffee, that's the signal to call the police--immediately.

For Wilson to discipline a teacher, he must conclude that there is "clear and convincing" evidence of a violation of the code of conduct. That's a lesser standard than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" burden of proof required for criminal convictions, but it's still a high hurdle. Local school officials in Washington must show merely a "preponderance of evidence" to fire someone.

In the end, Wilson dismisses roughly 75 percent of the cases. Sometimes, the investigation has clearly exonerated the teacher. But frequently, there's just not enough evidence. "Every day we dismiss a case where we know that there's probably something there," he says. "But we just couldn't meet the burden of proof.

"I'd much rather have a system where we look at 4,773 cases and throw out 95 percent or more. Then, we can at least make the judgment on people and know what we've got in the schools."

Critics of OPP say these statistics suggest something altogether different: The agency is guilty of overkill. To them, OPP's 1997 caseload of 4,773 investigations proves that the state is meddling in picayune matters where it doesn't belong. And because OPP makes cases involving allegations of physical or sexual child abuse a top priority, it often takes months before investigaters follow up on reports of more minor violations--months during which a teacher is shrouded in suspicion. "You almost have to molest a child to get their attention," jokes Jerry Painter, general counsel for the Washington Education Association. "Anything else just takes forever."

California has been running criminal background checks on teachers since the 1950s, which has led some to accuse it of teacher-bashing.

Bill Powell, a lawyer who has represented teachers under investigation, contends that local school officials are sending OPP frivolous cases because the agency has warned of stiff consequences for failing to report suspected violations of the code of conduct. "Now, superintendents are reporting every two-bit thing going on in the schools. And rather than schools handling things and getting on with the business of education, it becomes a capital offense."

One of Powell's clients was investigated after she fell asleep at her classroom desk. "That's not something that should be reported to the state superintendent of public instruction," Powell argues. "That's an example of the nit-picky garbage that doesn't need to be investigated. It needs to be handled by the district."

Painter also would like to rein in OPP. Legally, the state must prove a direct connection between teachers' conduct and their classroom performance to issue a discipline order, and Painter argues the state sometimes pursues cases where that nexus is tenuous.

An affiliate of the National Education Association, the WEA backed the legislation to fingerprint veteran teachers, but only after the media jumped on the story of the arrest and conviction of a Seattle hall monitor for raping a student. "We had to take that position," Painter says. "It was kind of like the question: Do you still beat your wife? What were we going to say: 'We don't want to protect kids from these sexual predators that are out there?' "

Fingerprinting, Painter claims, has not made schools appreciably safer: Of the 75,000 school employees fingerprinted after the 1996 law passed, OPP opened investigations on only five certificated individuals. The $4.1 million spent on that fingerprinting, Painter argues, would have been better spent on training school staff and faculties how to act around kids and how to spot problem teachers. But that doesn't ring well in the legislature, he says. "You can't beat your chest and say, 'Well, we just provided two hours of training for teachers.' Instead, they can say, 'We're fingerprinting the world.' "

Fingerprinting is a lightning rod for criticism in most states. California has been running background checks on teachers since the 1950s, but Paul Longo says his agency is still accused of teacher-bashing. "We're not out to get teachers," he says. "We're out to get dopers and perverts who happen to hold certificates."

Wilson and Nore argue that fingerprinting is invaluable. In presentations to education groups, Wilson demonstrates this using a certificate applicant from 1992. Before the background check law was passed that year, the Washington state patrol would have run that applicant's name and date of birth through their records and uncovered no felonies. An FBI background check using the applicant's fingerprint, however, turned up 19 arrests or convictions, including a conviction for counterfeiting from Detroit, a burglary arrest from New York, a charge of selling heroin from Los Angeles, and a charge of kidnapping from Oakland, California.

Background checks don't turn up huge numbers of such felons, Wilson argues, because the bad guys get scared off. Criminals know that the fingerprinting will unearth their dark secrets, he contends, so they either don't bother to apply for a certificate or they bail out of the profession when background checks are introduced. "Finding the bad person is more of the anomaly," he says. "When we talk to reporters, they always say, 'So how many bad guys did you find in the project?' And my answer is: 'That's not what the checks are designed to do.'"

Nore sees the goal of every one of her investigations as the protection of kids.

Proving that fingerprinting works as a deterrent is impossible, but Wilson argues there's anecdotal evidence. When the state ran background checks on all school employees following the passage of the 1996 law, OPP heard stories from a number of districts about teachers and other certificated employees who balked at being fingerprinted and eventually quit. In all, the number of people fingerprinted fell 3,000 short of the forecasted count of 78,000. Not all of the 3,000 were ex-criminals who feared their rap sheets would be uncovered, Wilson contends, but some of them were.

As for the criticism that investigations take too long, Wilson agrees that OPP can do better. Probes stemming from complaints filed by local school officials run an average of two years. But he claims that a backlog of cases from the 1996 fingerprinting law has gummed things up. Once that backlog is trimmed, he says, the pace of investigations will speed up.

Investigations, however, will always take time if they are done thoroughly, Nore warns. Investigators must dig beyond the initial complaint to determine if the code violation reported to OPP is symptomatic of other misconduct. In other words, where there's smoke, there's often fire. "If you're really going to do the things that we're supposed to do, it takes a long time," Nore says. "We're always going to have longer timelines than people are going to be comfortable with."

It's been years since the case of the 14-year-old Hispanic girl first instilled Nore with a sense of mission, and the hundreds of investigations she's done since have tempered her idealism somewhat. There's no way to protect every child, she's realized. Adults who are a threat to children don't always have criminal records that turn up in FBI background checks. And sometimes, the pile of evidence in the case file just doesn't reach high enough to meet the burden of proof.

But Nore still sees the goal of every one of her investigations as the protection of kids. Over the course of hundreds of investigations, she has seen lots of children hurt, but in the sexual-abuse cases, she says, children often are damaged beyond repair. "It's bad enough when a child gets hurt physically. But in the sexual cases, they get hurt for a very long time. It takes a long time for them to get over it--if they do."

Many times in her career, Nore has not managed to persuade the victim to give sworn testimony about what was done to her. She knows what happened--the girl's eyes say it all--and she's armed with a case file the size of the Seattle yellow pages. Yet without that critical sworn statement, she doesn't have much of a case.

Still, Nore doesn't push. If rumors of the abuse are circulating, she knows the girl has already suffered a lot: the lewd propositions from boys; the questions from parents and teachers who say they believe her but act otherwise; and the eyes, dozens of pairs of them, following her down the hallway at school. Perhaps if Nore were a police detective soured by years of slugging bad coffee from a styrofoam cup, she would urge the girl to sign the statement and close the case. But she's not. Instead, Nore will tell the girl, "It's OK if you don't sign it; if you can't, you can't." And she'll move on to the next case.

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