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"Predatory teachers, coaches face tighter scrutiny in new laws"
Christine Willmsen, Seattle Times staff reporter
Sunday, March 27, 2004

Washington Gov. Gary Locke signed into law a package of three bills this week that will close loopholes that allow teachers and coaches with sexual-misconduct histories to continue working with students.

Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, said these laws are some of the most important legislation to come out of the short 60-day session this year.

" It's monumental and makes a significant difference for kids," said Benton, who co-sponsored some of the bills.

The legislation was sparked by a Seattle Times series, "Coaches who prey," which found that schools often have allowed predatory teachers and coaches to bounce from one school district to another while keeping their histories secret.

The Times series, published in December, found 159 coaches who were disciplined or fired because of sexual misconduct; yet 98 of them continued working with children.

Under the new legislation, districts will no longer be able to enter into severance agreements with employees that conceal sexual-misconduct complaints, and they must notify each other about current and past employees' sexual misconduct.

The legislation also prohibits the destruction of sexual-misconduct records.

"I believe they (the laws) will be of real assistance to school districts and especially to students and their families in keeping sexual predators from being employed in our schools," said Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, who sponsored two of the bills.

Benton added, "Finally the time has come where we can say to teachers and coaches, 'If you abuse the trust that parents put in you, it will be the last time you are given that trust, you won't be able to move out of the state or negotiate your way out of it or get another coaching position.' "

The Washington Education Association initially opposed some of the bills during committee hearings; however, spokesman Rich Wood said, "We support the bills in the final form. We worked with the Legislature to improve the bills and support them."

One of the laws signed by Locke yesterday forces the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to complete an investigation within one year when a complaint of sexual misconduct is filed against an educator, unless there is a concurrent criminal investigation. The Times found some investigations took almost four years to complete and that, on average, the agency took two years to investigate sexual-abuse complaints. The law also allows parents to file complaints directly with the OSPI.

Another law signed yesterday by Locke requires classified school employees — janitors, clerical or other staff — to report suspected child abuse to the appropriate school administrator. Certified employees, such as teachers and administrators, already were required to do so. The law also requires both classified and certified employees to be trained on reporting abuse every three years.