Sunday, October 21, 2007

N.H. teacher screening system lets some abusers slip through

Yet another reason for school choice....the safety of our children. The following article appeared in the Concord Monitor via the AP.

N.H. teacher screening system lets some abusers slip through

Associated Press Writer

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- When it comes to keeping risky teachers out of New Hampshire classrooms, background checks and other screening tools can miss crucial warning signs.

"I think it's a 'B,'" said Henry LaBranche, who dealt with several cases of teacher misconduct in more than 30 years as a school superintendent. "Even within our own protocols there are ways in which you could fall through the cracks."

Between 2001 and 2005, with an average of 18,488 credentialed teachers in the state, the state Department of Education revoked the credentials of 22 teachers. Nine of those involved allegations of sexual misconduct, including child pornography and sexual assault, according to state records, news reports and court documents.

New Hampshire's figures were gathered as part of a seven-month investigation in which Associated Press reporters sought records on teacher discipline in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Across the country, sexual misconduct allegations led states to take action against the licenses of 2,570 educators from 2001 through 2005. That figure includes licenses that were revoked, denied and surrendered.

Young people were victims in at least 69 percent of the cases, and the large majority of those were students.

Nine out of 10 of those abusive educators were male. And at least 446 of the abusive teachers had multiple victims.

There are about 3 million public school teachers in the United States.

In New Hampshire, prospective school volunteers and employees must pass state and FBI criminal background checks. An investigator working for the state is obliged to look into all complaints about teachers, and has about 100 cases going on at all times.

"I think we have a good system, certainly in this state, for tracking down complaints," said Judith Fillion, director of teacher standards and certification for the department. "I wouldn't say that I'm frustrated by it. I think we do due diligence."

But others familiar with the screening system say its limitations can protect offenders and hamstring those trying to weed them out.

"I think it works real well if you happen to have been adjudicated," said Paul Cooper, personnel director for seven Keene-area school districts. "It doesn't work real well if you've got an allegation or something that hasn't been adjudicated, or if you dodged whatever bullet."

Some of the flaws:

- Criminal background checks that don't cover less serious but still worrisome crimes

- Incomplete criminal records

- Criminal and education records effectively sanitized through plea-bargains and other negotiations

- Privacy laws and fear of lawsuits that limit the disclosure of adverse information, not only by former employers but by law enforcement

- Difficulty prosecuting teachers accused of sexual relationships with students over the age of consent

A background check did not catch that Kevin J. Corrigan had been charged with making harassing phone calls to a college student in Massachusetts when he was hired as a language arts teacher and coach at Woodbury Middle School in Salem in 2001. His teaching career didn't unravel until he was arrested in June 2002 in Kingston and charged with harassing and assaulting a teenage girl. Only then did officials learn that Corrigan was on probation in Massachusetts on terms that barred him from coaching children younger than 16. A plea deal kept the charges off his record.

After his New Hampshire arrest, parents learned that during his first year in Salem, Corrigan had been disciplined for inappropriately touching a female student, and that others had complained of feeling uncomfortable around him.

LaBranche, then superintendent in Salem, said the incident jolted awake educators who had put their faith in a system that turned out to have significant shortcomings.

"At the time ... we only had a narrow perspective in terms of what the background history and check was," he said. "It wasn't until those types of experiences happened that we realized that the system didn't have the in-depth check that we initially assumed it had."

Corrigan had mentioned a Massachusetts arrest during his interview for the Salem job. But officials said he left out details, and they accepted his explanation that the arrest was over annoying phone calls to a woman he had been involved with. They decided the incident would not affect his performance in the classroom.

In hindsight, that was a mistake. "That's a red flag we should have paid attention to. Much closer attention to," said LaBranche, now Salem's town manager. After Corrigan, Salem schools expanded their vetting process beyond standard criminal background and reference checks, on occasion hiring private investigators to dig into candidates' histories.

Corrigan now lives in North Carolina. Reached by telephone, he said he no longer teaches and declined to be interviewed for this article.

Even if Corrigan's record had been available, it might not have made a difference. New Hampshire law would have prevented school officials from knowing that Corrigan twice pleaded guilty in Massachusetts to making harassing phone calls to young women. New Hampshire law requires applicants be checked for a range of serious crimes - including murder, kidnapping, rape, sexual assault and child pornography - but not lesser offenses like harassment, which still might concern school officials.

"I routinely tell people, 'Do not put all your hiring eggs in my basket. We're just a small part of the puzzle. ... Go with your gut feelings," said Jeffrey Kellett, chief administrator of criminal records for the New Hampshire State Police. "If there are red flags that pop up through the usual application process or interviewing process, follow those."

Kellett's office conducts state and FBI background checks for school districts. He is barred by law from giving school officials the specifics of a person's criminal record, and can only say whether it contains an offense that would disqualify someone from being hired.

"It's a range and they have no idea. We are prevented by statute from divulging exactly what the information is," he said.

Because not all states report into a federal criminal records database, background checks don't always turn up everything that is reportable.

"If you're looking for the full history on someone you could have to run several searches - and again, that's only going to give you the public record. If a file has been sealed or an offense has been annulled or expunged off someone's record, you're never going to find that information," said Thomas Velardi, a Strafford County prosecutor who has experience with teacher misconduct cases.

"Whatever the school systems are doing they seem to be doing it well enough to forestall these types of issues from happening, but obviously any agency can always do a better job," he said. "And even the most diligent background screeners are going to miss people's intentions which are formed after the date" they are hired.

Access to information is limited in other areas, too. For example, state law prevents state police from telling prospective employers whether former middle school teacher Tracy Kukesh followed through with the terms of a plea deal and registered as a sex offender after he pleaded guilty in 2002 to misdemeanor sexual assault involving a student. (Kukesh did lose his teaching credentials.) That's because only two-thirds of New Hampshire's sex-offender registry is public. The remaining third, including those convicted of misdemeanor sexual assault, is confidential. State police are barred from saying who's on it, let alone why.

"It's protecting the offenders' privacy. We've been banging our heads against the wall for years," said Jill Rockey, a state trooper who works on the registry.

Because every state's registry requirements are different, offenders can avoid registration by moving to a state with more favorable rules. A new federal law aims to set national standards for registries, but it will be three years before New Hampshire is in compliance, Rockey said.

Revocation records kept by the state Education Department also can be misleading. Of the 22 credentials revoked (or surrendered in the face of revocation) between 2001 and 2005, sexual misconduct is overtly mentioned in only three cases - one each for child pornography, sexual assault of a student and sexual misconduct with students. The six other sexual misconduct cases were confirmed independently of state records.

"Left the field of education" is the official reason given for teacher Dennis P. Sheehan's revocation in October 2005. The Education Department's public record omits the details: that Sheehan was fired from Londonderry High School in 1999 over allegations he fondled himself in front of two students. Acquitted of lewdness and indecent exposure charges, Sheehan lost his job but hung onto his teaching license and was hired to teach at Methuen High School in Massachusetts. That lasted until 2003, when he again became the target of misconduct allegations. Again, he was acquitted.

In a brief telephone interview, Sheehan said he gave up his teaching credential after the second acquittal.

"I just got disgusted with the whole thing. Won both court cases and just said I can't go through with that again, so I turned it in," he said.

Revocation records can be misleading because teachers who surrender their credentials before their cases go to hearings can work out deals to limit what becomes public.

"When we make the agreement about what the revocation says, we do it in conjunction with their attorney," Fillion said. The rest of the information is sealed, so that labels like "inappropriate" and "unprofessional" conduct may cover a range of accusations and misdeeds - "all the way up to sex," she said. The state does not differentiate between credentials that are revoked and those that are surrendered.

School officials say the vast majority of teachers behave professionally, and warn that even the most transparent records and most thorough investigations would not guarantee schools free of predators.

But as further insurance against problems, some districts take precautions to protect teachers and students alike from accusations of misconduct.

For example, Londonderry passed an anti-fraternization policy in 2002, a year after high school teacher Timothy Masse was accused of sexually assaulting a 17-year-old student. (He pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of simple assault.) The policy governs teacher-student relationships ranging from physical contact to e-mails.

Marie Ross, superintendent of the Newfound Area School District, says she advises teachers and coaches to avoid driving students in their cars. If they do, she urges them to drive more than one student at a time, and to make sure students stay in the back seat.

"You need to make judgment calls and I will always make a judgment call that that errs on the side of caution," she said.

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