Policing The Profession
|Adelle Nore and her team of investigators are working to keep their state's teaching force free of sex offenders, drug peddlers, and anyone else who poses a threat to children.|
To visit the drab offices of Washington state's Office of Professional Practices is to journey through education's heart of darkness. There, safely stowed behind windows secured with mesh wire, sit hundreds of files documenting the alleged sins of teachers, principals, and school administrators in the state.
OPP is home to these files because it is the state agency charged with sorting through reports of misconduct by educators. It investigates offenses both small and great, which makes reading its case files something like descending through the levels of Dante's Inferno. Most of the educators are under investigation for minor transgressions, like the caffeine-starved teacher who abandoned his class for a Starbucks run. In such cases, the accused seem more guilty of stupidity than educational malpractice.
But deeper in the files you find more heinous characters: The teacher who called students "Jew bastards" and "fish eaters." The principal who threatened to kill his superintendent over a bad evaluation. The shop instructor who covered a sleeping student in newspaper and set the paper ablaze. And, of course, Mary Letourneau, the Washington teacher who landed on the cover of People after she slept with a 13-year-old student and bore his child.
OPP has four investigators on staff, but Adelle Nore, the chief investigator, gives all the files at least a once-over. Nore doesn't exactly fit Hollywood's stereotype of the cynical sleuth. At 55, she is a grandmother three times over. Her straight brown hair is cropped short, above the ears, seemingly with little regard for fashion or symmetry. In conversation, she doles out praise in generous portions, even when none is deserved.
This Barbara Bush-like image of goodness hardly seems fitting for someone who probes education's dark side, and yet Nore is among the best in the country at what she does. After more than 15 years on the job, she's become something of an expert in a fledgling field, as more states move to expand efforts to rid their educator corps of bad apples.
Although Nore was once a teacher, she's not exactly guaranteed a warm welcome in school faculty lounges today. OPP's gung-ho approach to cleaning up the profession drags too many innocent teachers through the mud, the agency's critics claim.
Nore, however, sees her work as a service to kids and to the profession. An investigation early in her career convinced her that scouring education's underbelly was just as important as teaching fractions. The case involved a 14-year-old Hispanic girl. Taking a makeup test one day after school, the girl finished her work and turned to find her teacher, a man, standing before her naked. When he approached, she bolted from the classroom and fled the building in tears. The teacher later admitted what he'd done and was arrested, Nore says, but the girl's family concluded she had somehow led him on. Nore and district officials convinced the girl's father otherwise, but the mother and the rest of the family swore they would never speak to her again.
|In California, 25 investigators, lawyers, and support staff man the professional practices division, more than triple the number of a decade ago.|
"I always remember that case because all this kid did was go to school," Nore says. "That's all she did. That was really hard for me. I decided that if I'm going to investigate, this is why I'm going to investigate. This shouldn't happen, ever."
In most states, education law codes make at least a passing reference to the quaint-sounding notion that teachers should exemplify good "moral character" or "personal fitness." But for years, most states did little to enforce this ideal beyond asking would-be teachers to list any felony convictions on their certificate applications.
Recently, though, some states have concluded that they must do more. Under the auspices of agencies with innocuous-sounding names like Professional Practices Services, they have mounted more aggressive and more legally based efforts to investigate the backgrounds of certificate applicants as well as alleged misconduct by veteran teachers. In California, for example, 25 investigators, lawyers, and support staff man the professional practices division, more than triple the number of a decade ago.
Some states are hiring lawyers and former law-enforcement types. This kind of legal firepower is needed, state officials say, to ensure that revocations and other certification actions go by the book in the face of an increasing number of lawsuits. "Used to be, teachers just gave up their certificates and slunk off," says Michelle Beus, a former Utah investigator and criminal-defense attorney. No more. Last year, a Utah teacher sued the state, claiming it had mishandled her license revocation. When state officials investigated her claims, they found that rules and procedures were inconsistent and often not followed. They returned her certificate, despite her conviction for felony child abuse, but since then, the state has moved to put its revocations on firmer legal ground. And it is again moving to take away the teacher's certificate.
The splashiest, most policelike method states use to ensure the profession's wholesomeness is the FBI criminal-background check. More than half the states fingerprint teacher-certificate applicants for such checks, and a handful fingerprint veteran teachers, as well. FBI statistics suggest a recent boom in the popularity of such checks: In 1994, the FBI processed the fingerprints of 185,000 school employees; three years later, the number had more than doubled to 459,000.
In many states, teachers' unions have fought off legislation authorizing such checks, arguing that they are a gross invasion of privacy. Why single out one group of professionals, the unions contend, when fingerprinting others with regular access to kids--doctors, for example--is unthinkable?
Such logic, however, matters little when horror stories about teachers with rap sheets kick up a storm of outrage. In 1996, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette dug up the criminal records of the state's 38,000 teachers and found about 100 who had previously been charged with crimes ranging from peddling drugs to having sex with minors. Union officials contend the newspaper hyped and distorted its front-page series, but they nonetheless dropped opposition to fingerprinting veteran teachers, setting the stage for the legislation's approval. "It was a monster story," explains Grainger Ledbetter, former president of the Arkansas Education Association.
|Nore's reputation is enhanced by the fact that she spearheads one of the country's most aggressive investigative agencies.|
Adelle Nore was investigating teachers long before such work became a
growth industry in education. After graduating from college in 1965,
she taught junior high for five years in Alaska. But when Nore and her
family moved to Seattle, she joined Washington state's education
department as a certification specialist, helping teachers and other
educators navigate the route to the classroom. It was while working in
certification office in the early 1980s that her boss gave her the job of investigating educators'
Nore, who had not done investigative work before, patched together some training from various police and social service agencies. But her first forays into the field taught her some valuable lessons. In an interview during an early sexual-abuse case, Nore told the alleged victim that she looked scared. The girl shot back, "That's OK, because you look really scared, too. "
Today, hundreds of cases later, Nore is a recognized national authority on teacher-misconduct investigations. She is sharp, says Paul Longo, a California education official and chairman of the professional practices committee of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, and her grandmotherly tendencies work to her advantage. "There could be no better model for an investigator," Longo explains. "You can't have investigators who are hardened ex-cops. Teachers won't respond to that, and neither will victims."
Nore's reputation is enhanced by the fact that she spearheads one of the country's most aggressive investigative agencies. Between 1987 and 1995, Washington state revoked or denied 373 certificates. Only California and Florida--states with considerably more educators--topped that number, according to NASDTEC. Last year, Washington closed 4,773 investigations--roughly 2,500 more than Florida and about the same as California.
Washington has not always been so vigilant. During her first years on the job, Nore was the state's sole investigator. Then, in the late 1980s, Washington revamped its certification operation to better safeguard revocations and denials against legal challenges. The Office of Professional Practices was created as the state's investigative arm, with the state education department's general counsel at its head.
About the same time, the state created a code of conduct for
educators. Many states grant their schools chiefs power to strip
teachers of their
certificates for "unprofessional conduct," but Washington's code outlines specific actions that can jeopardize a certificate. These include falsification or misrepresentation of credentials; sexual misconduct (including physical or verbal advances); doctoring students' grades or evaluations; and possession or use of illegal drugs on school premises. Alcohol abuse is considered a disease, but the state can revoke the certificate of a teacher who repeatedly comes to school under the influence.
Using the code's guidelines, the general counsel evaluates the evidence gathered by investigators and determines whether the state should revoke or deny a certificate, issue a reprimand or suspension, or simply dismiss the case. Rick Wilson, the counsel, has made all these weighty decisions since 1990. In criminal cases where the accused is convicted of a crime involving abuse, neglect, or injury to a child, his job is a no-brainer: Revocation is automatic. Sometimes, the accused themselves negate the need for a decision: Since 1990, 166 educators--including Mary Letourneau--have surrendered their certificates, some before their cases even reached Wilson's desk.