The state government would open its now-secret books on teacher sexual misconduct in Maine. Missouri school districts would be barred from backroom deals that let misbehaving teachers quietly move on. New York would be able to swiftly remove convicted teachers’ licenses.
Across the country, governors, legislative leaders and top education officials are pledging to close loopholes that have allowed teacher sexual misconduct to persist. In Congress, legislation that targets such misbehavior has gathered more sponsors.
The efforts follow an Associated Press investigation last month that found 2,570 educators nationwide whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered or sanctioned from 2001-2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct. Experts who track sexual abuse say those cases are representative of a much deeper problem.
There are roughly 3 million public school teachers nationwide.
“I want to make sure we do all we ca n do,” said Maine Gov. John Baldacci. “When you are made aware of circumstances that could be harmful to children, you do want to act.” Maine was the only state where officials refused to provide the AP information on disciplinary actions against teachers, citing a 1913 law.
Baldacci said he intends to change Maine’s confidentiality law and has discussed ways to do that with Education Commissioner Sue Gendron.
In Congress, GOP Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida is the sponsor of a bill to create a national registry for teacher offenders and to set up toll-free hotlines to report allegations of abuse.
He’s now been joined by Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Florida, who is sponsoring companion legislation to Putnam’s proposal. Several other House members have signed on, too.
The AP investigation tracked cases of abuse, including molestation and rape. Other misconduct that brought disciplinary action included child pornography and sexual harassment. In just over half the instances, educators were not only disciplined professionally but also convicted of criminal charges.
Among the proposed changes at the state level:
• Legislative leaders in Missouri and Minnesota are pursuing measures that would force school districts hiring a teacher to fully explore personnel records. The AP investigation found several cases in those states and others where school officials failed to learn about previous problems even though they’d been documented in state records or at other schools.
• A Missouri lawmaker wants to prohibit confidentiality agreements between districts and teachers who commit sexual misconduct, after the AP turned up the case of a teacher who quietly moved on after more than a dozen accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct. The teacher taught at three more districts before his license was revoked for his past problems. “We need to know the level and the breadth of the problem in Missouri,” said state Rep. Jane Cunn ingham, a Republican. “We can’t turn our back on a situation like this.”
• In California, legislative leaders plan to focus on a state law that bars the teacher credentialing commission from revealing the reason teachers lose their licenses if they plead no contest. Under no contest pleas, defendants are punished as if they pleaded guilty, but retain the right to challenge the charges against them in lawsuits and other proceedings. Such deals made it unclear why educator licenses were sanctioned in dozens of cases, the AP found.
• In New York, state Education Commissioner Richard Mills said his agency wants changes that would allow swift removal of some teachers’ licenses. Under current law, education officials must still go through a decertification process when a teacher is convicted of a crime related to sexual misconduct. Mills’ proposal means a license would automatically be revoked upon conviction, avoiding lengthy and costly hearings.
• In Kentucky a nd South Carolina, authorities are looking at age of consent legislation. South Carolina Education Superintendent Jim Rex wants to make it a felony for a teacher to have sex with a student, regardless of the student’s age. Kentucky Rep. J.R. Gray wants to raise the age of consent from 16 to 18.
Though many leaders are coming forward to condemn misconduct, there also are voices of criticism.
In Minnesota, Karen Ballmer, executive director of the Board of Teaching, said requiring each district to check with the state before hiring a new teacher could become a logistical problem at certain times of the year, when districts are doing a lot of hiring.
Read more about this series, “A Lingering Shame: Sexual Abuse of Students by School Employees.” The collection includes a new Associated Press series on the issue, as well as special Education Week coverage.
In Missouri, the state School Boards’ Association raised doubts about an across-the-board ban on confidentiality agreements.
“Sometimes, there are good reasons a school board might have for confidentiality agreements,” said association spokesman Brent Ghan. “Some protect the identity of students. Some protect the districts from costly litigation, saving taxpayer dollars.”
Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons, a Republican who supports Cunningham’s goals, said the school boards’ concerns don’t trump student safety.
Back in New York, Gov. Eliot Spitzer said he supported Mills’ proposals and would like to expand using “phone tip lines” so people could report misconduct.
“As a parent, these stories are like a nightmare,” said Assembly Education Committee Chairwoman Catherine T. Nolan, a Democrat. “I was particularly struck that, often times, children were not believed or families that brought charges were ostracized. Surely we can do better as a society.”
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