School Climate & Safety

Online Databases of Misdeeds by Teachers Raising Concerns

By Vaishali Honawar — September 04, 2007 3 min read
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Florida has become the latest among a handful of states where the public can log on to check which teachers have been disciplined on such charges as drug possession and sexual abuse.

The searchable database, opened last month by the state education department, lists 319 disciplinary orders handed out against teachers since January by the state’s Education Practices Commission, which investigates such complaints. In action stemming from those complaints, 64 of the teachers had their licenses revoked.

While most states collect such information and make it available through an open-records request, only three others—Ohio, Texas, and Vermont—offer publicly accessible online versions. The Texas and Ohio databases are intended primarily for administrators seeking to hire teachers.

The National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Licensing maintains a national database of actions on teacher licenses, but it is available only to members.

Jennifer Fennell, a spokeswoman for the Florida education department, said officials want to give parents a resource to help ensure the safety of students. Within a week of its launch, the database had attracted more than 56,000 visitors.

But teacher representatives and others see serious concerns with the database, which, they say, needs to be refined. Some observers raised the possibility of civil rights violations.

Mark Pudlow, the communications director of the Florida Education Association, said his organization is worried that the database could give people “the potential for making more of a situation than exists.”

Teachers who have names similar to those who appear on the database could find themselves unfairly targeted, he said. “If you have a lot of Maria Garcias out there, it would be easy to mistake one for the other,” he said.

Value of Data Debated

A leading expert in the area of sexual abuse in schools, however, hailed the move to give parents easy access. “It is important for parents to understand what kinds of things have been addressed, how prevalent are such inappropriate behaviors,” said Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, in Richmond. “This is another way to safeguard our students.”

The Florida database offers a window into the kinds of misdeeds teachers are investigated for, as well as how the state disciplines them. For example, in each of the 11 instances of sexual abuse of a child, teachers’ licenses were revoked. But the punishment varied for those charged with downloading pornographic pictures on school-issued computers. One teacher had his license revoked, another received a two-year suspension, and a third was reprimanded and fined $500.

Offenses on the Web

Since January, teachers in Florida were disciplined for numerous infractions, including:

Drug and alcohol violations82
Driving offenses49
Sexual misconduct16
Child sexual abuse11
Child abuse4

Notes: Some individuals charged with multiple offenses may be counted twice. Education Week calculated the figures based on information in the Florida database.

Some experts on teacher misconduct said the database lacks an explanation for such differences, among other variances. Right now, the education department simply summarizes each order in one or two sentences.

Other information is also vague, said Nan Stein, a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, in Wellesley, Mass., who has studied sexual harassment and bullying in schools.

Say a teacher was charged with inappropriately disciplining a student, she said. “Is that somebody who made [a student] wipe the floor, or somebody who taped a student’s mouth shut?” she said.

In cases where multiple charges and disciplinary actions were taken against a teacher, it is not clear what charge resulted in which punishment. “I think [the database] is a gross violation of teacher civil rights,” Ms. Stein said.

‘More Vigilant’

Darren Allen, the communications director of the Vermont National Education Association, cited the hypothetical case of a special education teacher who failed to file paperwork and had her license suspended for three days. If such a case became widely publicized, he said, her reputation could be damaged.

“[The database] can stall careers for minor infractions,” he added. Vermont put its database online in 2000, and state education officials there say they have yet to see any negative effects.

The Texas database, which went online in 1997, is actually meant for administrators to look up teachers’ certification status. If a teacher was disciplined for misconduct, it appears online.

Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, the communications director for the Texas education department, said putting the disciplinary information on the “virtual” certificate has helped districts expedite background checks.

In Vermont, education department spokeswoman Jill Remick said, the database acts as a deterrent to teacher misconduct.

“It has led to more public awareness and made schools and educators more vigilant,” she said, about whom they hire.

Research Librarian Rachael Holovach contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 2007 edition of Education Week

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