Superintendent Works to Prevent Sexual Misconduct
Arthur Brokop, a young substitute teacher, shut the windowless door of the first-grade classroom he'd been called in to oversee.
He dimmed the lights while showing a video and, one by one, put three young girls on his lap so he could fondle them through their clothing.
The crime still haunts the school superintendent in this town surrounded by oil fields and the rugged high desert of northwestern New Mexico.
"We were negligent," superintendent Janel Ryan says, pointedly repeating a word used in a multimillion dollar civil judgment in favor of one of the victims. "It just ate me up."
Her candor is rare. So is the strength of her resolve to make sure a case like this never occurs again.
An AP investigation this fall found 2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered or sanctioned from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct. The AP also found that many other educators accused of sexual wrongdoing were able to make secret deals with a promise to their districts to leave quietly, some with letters of recommendation.
Even in the most public of sexual misconduct cases, school administrators are often reluctant to talk about it. Among other things, they fear embarrassment, blame and anger from parents.
But that shouldn't stop them from dealing with the issue head-on, says one expert who helps schools deal with and prevent teacher misconduct.
"The 'let-sleeping-dogs-lie' mentality is counterproductive," says Robert Shoop, a Kansas State University professor who's written a book for school administrators called "Sexual Exploitation in Schools: How to Spot It and Stop It."
"My suggestion is to admit mistakes, to apologize for mistakes and to make a pledge that you're not going to let this happen again," he says. "There's no guarantee that bad stuff won't happen. But you can certainly reduce the likelihood."
Ryan, who was promoted to the district's head job after the 2002 incident with Brokop, has followed that advice.
She recalls how, during a meeting about the civil lawsuit, a lawyer for one of the victims brusquely threw a copy of Shoop's book to her.
"She told me I'd do well to read it," Ryan recalls.
And she did, inviting Shoop to come and give a full-day training to principals in her district. In doing so, she also vowed to make substantial changes in screening and training for employees—and in the way the district handles sexual misconduct allegations.
Some districts are ordered by the court to take such action. But that wasn't the case in Farmington. Ryan says she did so because it was the right thing.
"I had to do something," says the longtime educator and Roman Catholic, who was partly inspired to act by the clergy sex abuse scandal in her own church. "If it's taught me anything, it's if there's an element of suspicion, you investigate."
Among the changes she and her staff have put into place:
—Local and federal background checks, using fingerprints, are done on every new employee. So far, random checks on existing employees are not legal, but she hopes that will change.
—Principals and new employees, from teachers and administrators to janitors and cooks, go through extensive training on sexual misconduct—what it is, how to avoid it, and what to do if they notice something suspicious.
—Employees also must sign a code of ethics, which includes language on sexual misconduct.
—Even when police are called in, administrators not involved with the incident do their own internal investigation. Ryan says every allegation, even if it is a concern based on rumor, is looked into. The district and three others in the county of roughly 125,000 people now use a standard procedure for investigating sexual misconduct allegations.
—All classroom doors now have windows. And substitutes are instructed to keep their doors open and are supposed to be monitored by neighboring teachers.
Many states, New Mexico included, require teachers and administrators to report suspicious behavior. The AP investigation found that, in some states, enforcement is lax. Some teachers also say they don't feel comfortable making reports to their principals—or don't think they will be taken seriously.
New Mexico legislators took steps to address those concerns with a law that took effect last summer. It requires districts to investigate alleged misconduct by school workers who are fired or quit, and to report their findings to the Public Education Department, which can revoke or suspend licenses.
In an attempt to stop the "passing the trash" phenomenon—when disciplined teachers hop from district to district—the New Mexico law also bans administrators from making confidential agreements with those teachers who've gotten in trouble.
Ryan says the law gives her much-needed back up in dealing with rogue teachers. But she also says it's up to her to set the tone in her district.
"What is the element of trust between the employees in a building and their administrators that things go unreported or undetected? What do I need to do as their leader to ensure that that happens?" she asks. "I need to model the behaviors that I expect."
Her "zero tolerance" stance on sexual misconduct might make some teachers nervous. But, so far, union representative Nancy Sheehan says Ryan has given her employees due process on these and other sensitive matters.
"She really does walk the talk," says Sheehan, a field representative for the National Education Association-New Mexico. "Things are handled evenly and fairly. And that's all we ask."
Ryan concedes that some cases are not so clear-cut as the Brokop case.
That happened recently when a female high school student accused a male teacher of inappropriate behavior. He was put on administrative leave for six weeks while she and her staff investigated.
"You talk about agonizing!" Ryan says. She and her staff ultimately decided that while the employee's behavior wasn't professional, it didn't warrant dismissal. She also questioned the student's motives in making the accusations.
"When it was all said and done, I put him back at work with a severe reprimand, making reference to our code of ethics," she says.
Other times, Farmington administrators intervene on behavior that might escalate into something inappropriate. In one case, a school employee was using her cell phone to text message seemingly harmless jokes to a student. She was told to stop immediately, and did.
"The principal drew the line and said, 'You don't do that,'" says Mary Lou Sheppeck, Farmington's assistant superintendent of human resources.
All of it is done in hopes that there will never be another case like the one involving Arthur Brokop, who served three years in prison after pleading guilty to molesting the three first-graders. Two of the girls' families settled their lawsuits with the district out of court for about $300,000 apiece. The other, whose family took the case to trial, was awarded $2.65 million.
One of the girl's grandfathers says he's trusting the Farmington schools to do their part in preventing more teacher sexual misconduct. And if they don't, "then shame on them," he says.
But he also believes it's up to the community to take a stand.
Last year, he picketed at a doughnut shop where Brokop was working and carried a sign that read "CHILD MOLESTER WORKS HERE." The grandfather, a former police officer and magistrate judge, worried that the shop was near an elementary school.
Brokop, who left the job when the shop closed, could not be reached for comment.
"It falls all the way back down to those of us on the front line," says the grandfather. "And if the parents don't do it and they don't hold those elected officials that we have on the school board accountable, then they deserve exactly what they get."