Loopholes That Allowed Killer To Become Teacher Spur Bills

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In October 1993, Los Angeles school officials discovered that they had put a killer in the classroom.

The district had hired a teacher who years earlier admitted in court that he had killed someone.

The California justice department's analysis of the teacher's fingerprints--a routine part of the district's job-application process--turned up the information about his past.

But even then, the district said it had few options for removing the teacher: The man was never convicted of a crime. Instead, he was found not guilty by reason of insanity in 1975 for murdering the therapist who was treating him for emotional problems.

The man, who had a valid state teaching credential, slipped through several legal loopholes, people familiar with the case said.

But after a twist of events brought the situation in Los Angeles to the state's attention, lawmakers and others began lobbying for two new bills that could prevent similar situations.

Concern for Rights

The first bill, which is expected to have broad support when California legislators consider it this month, would speed background checks of new school employees. Its proponents say the state and federal investigations of applicants take too long now--and that districts often end up hiring someone before criminal checks are completed.

The second bill could stir more controversy. It would require the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing to revoke the license of anyone who had been found insane by a federal or state court.

Some advocates for the mentally ill say the proposal is ambiguous and that it could conflict with federal laws protecting the rights of the disabled.

But the bill's supporters say classroom teachers must be held to a higher standard than other workers because of their close contact with children.

"We're not saying you can't hold any other job in society," said Stacy Smith, an assistant to Assemblyman Brooks Firestone, the author of the bill. "We're saying you can't teach."

District's Discovery

The example of the Los Angeles teacher may be extreme, but it highlights the need for tighter controls for entry into the profession, some observers said. (See Education Week, 11/9/94.)

The Los Angeles district took every precaution in hiring, they added, but the teacher still slipped through the system.

When he applied for the job in 1993, the teacher properly filled out the required forms, answering "no" when asked if he had been convicted of a crime, said Walt Greene, the director of employee services for the district.

The man's r‚sum‚ did not include the time he spent in treatment at a mental institution from 1975 to 1982. And when administrators screened the teacher for criminal convictions on two other occasions, nothing turned up.

It was the state justice department's fingerprint check that finally raised a red flag. The department, along with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, screens job candidates for the district.

But the man, who also had been a substitute teacher in other California districts, remained in the classroom for nearly a year.

Mr. Greene said the school had no grounds for dismissing him. His state license had been renewed without incident, and he did not fall under state laws barring sex offenders, drug dealers, or other convicted criminals from teaching.

"We did all the things legally we could do," Michael Acosta, the district's administrator for employment operations, said.

Chain Reaction

Several events, however, conspired against the teacher.

He was excused from jury duty last year after acknowledging his past, and, at the same time, a superior court judge discovered that the potential juror was also a teacher, Mr. Greene said.

Outraged, the judge asked the district for confirmation and then wrote to Gov. Pete Wilson about the situation but did not name the teacher.

The judge's letter, which apparently was leaked to the news media, brought additional scrutiny to the district.

Shortly thereafter, school officials moved the teacher--still in his probationary period as an employee--to an office job away from children. They had "lost confidence in his teaching," said Mr. Greene, noting that several parents had complained about him.

The matter could have ended there, but legislators, state officials, and others wanted to take action to save other districts from the same experience.

Los Angeles school officials have testified in favor of Mr. Firestone's bill, and they helped craft the separate bill to speed background checks, sponsored by Assemblyman Willard H. Murray Jr.

Under the background-check measure, early screenings would be done through local law-enforcement computers, although checks by the state and the F.B.I. would still be required, Mr. Greene said.

The California Teachers Association is following that bill closely but has not taken a position, a union official said last week.

However, the union opposes Mr. Firestone's bill because it does not account for the recovery of those judged at one time to be insane. And others, such as advocates for the mentally ill, also say they think the measure goes too far.

Vol. 14, Issue 28

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