DIRTY SECRETS: WHY SEXUALLY ABUSIVE TEACHERS AREN’T STOPPED
Post-Gazette.com/Jane Elizabeth Zemel and Steve Twedt
Children are often taught in school to look out for adults who might hurt them. Butsometimes, the grown-ups in their own classrooms are the ones who could do the most harm. Sexual misconduct by educators is a volatile, sensitive subject that's been whispered about inschool hallways and behind closed office doors as long as there have been schools. But a lackof public acknowledgment has helped the problem to spread and the bad teachers to circulate.
- Joseph Doherty, an Avonworth School District teacher, was cleared of criminal chargesbut resigned under pressure after being accused of sexually assaulting a student in 1997. Hewas able to get a teaching job in Maryland this year even though Avonworth school officials hadsent his case to the state Department of Education for review. Although Avonworth schoolofficials knew that Doherty had applied for the job, Maryland school officials said they didn'tknow about Doherty's arrest until a Post-Gazette reporter called to question them about theirknowledge of his background. After the PG's call, school administrators removed him from hisclassroom while they investigated. Doherty had been secretly videotaped by Avonworthofficials who had become suspicious of his behavior. On tape, he was seen engaged in what he calledwrestling moves with a 12-year-old boy in his locked classroom. Even though prosecutors arguedthat Doherty was obviously sexually aroused in the videotape, the district justice decided that nocrime had been committed. The boy and his mother would not testify. Pennsylvania officialswill not comment on the status of his teaching license. Doherty, 39, no longer works in theMaryland district. He has filed a civil lawsuit against the Avonworth School Board, claiming theydefamed his character.
- Dennis L. Bair, a music teacher in Burgettstown Area School District, WashingtonCounty, was convicted in June 1997 on two counts of indecent assault of a female student. However,he was allowed to surrender his license last year rather than have it revoked. That actioneffectively sealed his records and could enable him to teach again outside the state.
- Gary Serlo taught elementary school in Westmoreland County in the early 1970s beforebeing sent to a Greensburg prison in 1974 for child molestation. His license to teach inPennsylvania wasn't revoked until last year, though, when he was convicted of molesting three boysin his new school district in New York. Because of an incomplete background check, school officialswho hired Serlo never knew that he had served prison time for molestation.
- Larry Mihalko, an elementary school teacher in Gateway School District, was chargedearlier this year with indecent assault and other crimes. The charges stem from allegations broughtby former students -- three pre-teen girls -- who have testified that Mihalko had improperlytouched them while they were sitting on his lap, including putting his hand under their clothing.Mihalko's attorney has said that hugging, patting and holding students on his lap was part ofMihalko's teaching style. Mihalko's trial is scheduled to begin in January.
- Accused teachers represent a small percentage of our nation's educators. But thosewho do abuse students often abuse more than one, and the damage they do can be devastating.
- The Post-Gazette has examined 727 cases across the U.S. in which an educator has losthis or her license for sex offenses during the past five years, and has found some disturbingtrends. Among them:
- The number of teachers who have lost their licenses because of sex offenses hasincreased nearly 80 percent since 1994.
- Several of those who lost their licenses were caught only after they had beenmolesting students for many years.
- Offending teachers sometimes get help landing another teaching job from an unexpectedsource -- their former bosses. The practice is so well-known among educators that they refer to itby name. They call it passing the trash.
- Individual states' aggressiveness in detecting and removing predators from theclassroom varies widely, and some states do no background checks on teacher applicants at all.There is a private, national clearinghouse that tracks problem teachers but its director admitsthat states' reporting can be spotty, leaving everyone vulnerable to the so-called mobilemolester.
- Even when caught, offending teachers can launch appeals that allow them to retaintheir teaching certificate for two to three more years. In some cases, those teachers have moved toanother state and used that certificate to get a new teaching job until their appeals run out.
- Weak communication between the education and criminal branches of state governmentsmeans that education officials don't always find out if a teacher has been arrested for sex crimesor other offenses. In one case, Missouri education officials had to send a license-revocation orderto a Kansas man who had already begun serving a 90-year sentence for raping a teen-aged girl.
- Rumors and accusations that William C. Bennett was sexually abusing his male studentsfirst surfaced in the early 1980s, when he was teaching in a school in Virginia. They finally endedat a high school in Akron, Ohio, earlier this year. Bennett, a guidance counselor, pleaded guiltyin May in a case that charged him with having sex with students -- even in his school office. If you have ever had a recurring nightmare, then you can probably relate to the lastyear-and-a-half of my life, one of his victims told the judge at Bennett's trial. Bennett is nowserving a year in jail, has surrendered his teaching certificates, and is registered as a sexualpredator. He will never teach again, never devastate another young life.
- Kenneth Long was arrested twice in Florida, in 1989 and 1990, for offering studentsmoney for sex and was put on three years' probation. Yet he was hired in Alexandria, Va., in 1995when officials there failed to check for a criminal history; then he moved to Washington, D.C., inFebruary 1998. In May, a federal grand jury in Washington indicted Long on 35 counts ofinterstate transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. The victimwas a 14-year-old student. Long's trial is currently under way in Washington.
- In Pennsylvania, 38 teachers lost their certificates for sex-related offenses from1997 through 1998, compared to 21 in the two years before that. But even the growing numbers don'treflect the actual toll, experts say.
- The problem is not so much the number of offending teachers, it's the number ofstudents a single bad teacher can victimize.
- When they get caught, it's never a case of one act of bad judgment with one child,said Dr. W. Richard Fossey, associate dean of the college of education at Louisiana StateUniversity, who has researched teacher discipline cases. If you've caught one, you know thatthe guy has a history. And all too often, the victimizing teacher has help from an unlikelysource -- administrators in his own school. Examples are plentiful:
- A Houston-area family has filed suit against a Nebraska school district for allowinga problem teacher to resign, clean out his personnel file and walk away with a letter ofrecommendation in 1994. Weeks later, he was hired in Texas where, in the first month of classes, hemolested their son.
- In South Carolina, a young man molested by his teacher also is suing the teacher'sformer employer, Porter-Gaud School, and has posted his own web site to bring attention to theissue -- http://www.geocities.com/~shawws. According to the suit, Edward Fischer was forcedto resign from a private school in Charleston in 1982 after being accused of molesting a student.Yet administrators agreed to write a favorable letter of recommendation for him in exchange forthat resignation, and he continued teaching. In April, Fischer, 71, was convicted ofmolesting 13 boys.
- Four months after teacher Robert Pannier's conduct resulted in a warning againstusing vulgarity, profanity or sexual innuendo, two administrators in Mendota Heights, Minn., wroterecommendations for him in June 1995. He was hired by another Minnesota school district and taughtuntil early 1998 -- when police arrested him for having sex with a 15-year-old student.
- The Post-Gazette study of teacher misconduct also shows that aggressiveness inremoving predators from the classroom varies widely from state to state. While Ohio requires stateand federal background checks, some states, including West Virginia, conduct no background checkson teacher applicants. Others, including Pennsylvania, perform partial checks. This hasimplications for all states, because the inconsistency in background checks makes it easier for badteachers to circulate.
- The Post-Gazette also found that it commonly takes two to three years, and sometimeslonger, before education officials catch up to a license revocation made in another state. Thissometimes gives the person time to find a teaching job in another state -- at least until theirpast offenses emerge.
- In 1996, the Oregon agency that oversees teacher certification separately revoked thelicenses of two teachers who were accused of making sexual advances toward students. The incidentshad occurred as much as 12 years earlier, when the two men were teaching in different schooldistricts in California. As California officials moved to take away their licenses, the two landedjobs in Oregon by falsely stating on their application that they were not under investigation.
- Officials in Oregon learned of the first case when a parent in the teacher's formerdistrict tracked his whereabouts, and then tipped Oregon officials. They found out about the secondteacher when a reporter at a California paper called to ask about his teaching status.
- Too often, a bad teacher is quietly relieved of his or her job, only to show up inanother unsuspecting school.
- In William C. Bennett's case, Akron officials said they weren't aware that Bennetthad been dismissed from the Virginia school for what school officials called inappropriate conducttoward a student. But after a short time in Akron, he was accused of fondling a 9-year-oldboy. The incident was resolved by moving the boy to another elementary school. Moreaccusations came from students in 1994, 1996 and 1997, but were dismissed as untrue, althoughBennett was moved to the high school. Last September, a college student went to schoolofficials and told them Bennett had molested him in high school, and the investigation began thatled to his guilty plea.
- Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft, in a 1994 national survey of 225school superintendents, found that 221 teachers accused of sexual abuse quietly resigned or retiredfrom their district.
- Of those, superintendents were aware of 22 teachers who then were hired in otherdistricts. While they didn't know the whereabouts of the rest, the superintendents conceded thatmany of those teachers could be employed in other schools and that it would be easy for them toget other teaching jobs, Shakeshaft said.
- And all but about 1 percent retained their teaching licenses, Shakeshaft said.
- In a 1991 survey of 65 superintendents in North Carolina, a Winston-Salem Universityprofessor found 26 cases of sex-related offenses by teachers over the past three years. In 12cases, the teacher was fired or forced to resign, according to the researcher, Dr. Dan Wishnictsky.
- In the other cases, the teachers were simply reprimanded. Only one case was markedcharges not proven.
- On average, teachers who molest children have worked in two to three school districtsbefore they're stopped, according to Craig Emanuel, an investigator with the Arizona Department ofEducation. These are the teachers he calls the mobile molesters.
- The typical mobile molester case goes like this, he said:
- A teacher who's a sex offender works in a school district living a double life,until he gets out of control. School officials then learn about the abuse, and ask the teacher toleave quietly, dodging bad publicity and expensive legal proceedings.
- The teacher then moves to another district where he molests more children, and thenpossibly to yet another district.
- By that time, according to Emanuel's observations, the teacher's victims from thefirst district get older, wiser, and report the abuse to the police.
- The molester may then be prosecuted, but by that time he could have harmed dozens ofchildren.
- In Pennsylvania, local school districts are encouraged -- but not required -- toreport teachers who are forced to resign for cause. But it doesn't happen often.
- If a teacher is arrested, convicted, sent to jail, and resigns from his job, and thedistrict doesn't tell us, and it's not in the newspapers, we may never know about it, saideducation department spokeswoman Michele Haskins. In that case, the teacher's certification wouldremain intact, allowing them to continue working in classrooms.
Tide is turning
- When a teacher who has resigned under pressure applies for a job in another schooldistrict, often his previous school district will not reveal the problems to the new employer.That's because previous employers -- not only in school districts but in any profession -- areskittish about providing unfavorable references and possibly being sued by the employee.
- However, the legal tide is turning. Previously, said Thomas W. Pickrell, director oflegal services for the Arizona School Boards Association, lawyers told clients not to reveal anyinformation about former employees.
- Now, people are questioning that, and focusing on the social costs of thispractice, he said. The no-comment policy is turning into a more common-sense policy.
- Adding fuel to the common sense approach undoubtedly is the fact that more and moreabuse victims are suing the school districts that allowed the bad teachers to resign and move toanother school.
- One of the most notorious cases involves former band teacher George Crear III, whowas featured this month on ABC's 20/20. In 1987, two of Crear's former students in Flint, Mich.,went to the Michigan Board of Education and told officials that they had been molested by Crearmany years previously. But the statute of limitations had expired in their cases, and no criminalcharges could be filed. The board simply allowed Crear to resign, and his personnel file waspurged. Crear then obtained a job as a band teacher at Palmetto High School in Florida, whereofficials knew nothing of his background. Soon, Crear was facing sexual abuse allegations from atleast three girls. One of those students committed suicide. In a verdict that surprised evenhis attorneys, Crear was acquitted in Florida. But almost immediately, another Michigan victim cameforward with charges that Crear abused her. Crear now is serving life in prison in Michigan. And aformer Florida student who said she was molested by Crear was awarded $720,000 last year in a civilsuit against the school district.
- In a California case, a student complained to officials in the Pasadena UnifiedSchool District in 1983 about inappropriate advances by track coach Clyde Ezra Turner. Theinformation went into a secret memorandum that didn't surface again until this year, when Turnerwas sentenced for molesting a 15-year-old boy. The teen-ager testified that Turner had invited himto his home, showed him a pornographic video, and then molested him. At Turner's trial, threeother students testified that Turner molested them more than 15 years ago. Until the secret memowas uncovered by prosecutors, school officials denied they knew about any previous incidentsinvolving Turner, who led the track team to five state championships.
- Such teacher misconduct is far from common, acknowledged Bart Zabin, an investigatorwith the New York State Department of Education. There are only a small number of bad apples inthis wonderful orchard. But saving even one child from an abusive teacher is important, he said.
- One way to prevent abuse, said Arizona's Emanuel, is to stop accepting quietresignations from teachers when you yourself would not rehire this person and to constantly be onthe lookout for signs of teacher misconduct.
- A few states even have laws that sanction administrators if they knowingly write afavorable recommendation to get rid of a problem teacher.
- Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia are not among those states.
- We have to recognize, Emanuel said, in this profession there are people, childmolesters, who will go to any lengths to be with children.