Ethics Data Online - Articles
"Under the Radar"
The stories astound us as we hear them. Yet all too commonly the breaking news of the day involves a student who has become the victim of a person they have come to trust, a person they have established a daily relationship with – their teacher, a coach, custodian, classroom assistant, bus driver or other school district employee. Each of us is left with the question, "Why didn’t somebody know about this person?"
Research on sexual misconduct
The research is clear. From March through August 1998 Education Week (Hendrie, 1998) conducted a study that identified 244 cases of sexual misconduct allegations in schools, ranging from unwanted touching to sexual relationships and serial rape. The employees involved were teachers, principals, janitors, bus drivers, and librarians. Only two of these cases were not viewed as “valid” complaints. That leaves 242 victims whose lives will forever be marred as a result. These predators violated their public trust in an educational setting where students should feel secure and safe with adults.
The recent national news involving the case of John Mark Karr (Kher and Montlake, 2006) and his supposed involvement in the Jon Benet Ramsey crime is a prominent example. While Mr. Karr was not found credible in his declarations regarding the Ramsey case, further investigation revealed that he had previously worked for school districts in Alabama and California as a substitute teacher and that during that employment there was a clear record of allegations of inappropriate contact between Karr and grade school students. The information showed that when parents complained about his behavior, districts either simply asked him to leave or he agreed to resign. Because he was able to “work the system,” he simply moved to the next district without any intervention.
In the state of Washington, local media conducted a specific investigation into complaints about coaches. The Seattle Times (Willmsen and O’Hagan, 2003) discovered the following:
• Over the past decade, 159 coaches in Washington have been fired or reprimanded for sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to rape. Nearly all were male coaches victimizing girls. At least 98 of these coaches continued to coach or teach.
• The actual number of offending coaches is probably much greater as many cases go unreported. When faced with complaints against coaches, school officials often failed to investigate them and sometimes ignored a law requiring them to report suspected abuse to police. Many times officials disregarded a state law requiring them to report misconduct to the state education office.
• Even after getting caught, many men were allowed to continue coaching because school administrators promised to keep their disciplinary records secret if the coaches simply left. Some districts paid tens of thousands of dollars to get coaches to leave. Other districts hired coaches they knew had records of sexual misconduct.
• When the state gets involved, its investigations can be as flawed as local districts. On average, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) took two years to investigate a case and sometimes didn’t conduct a single interview with a victim, coach or school official. Often, the state simply dropped investigations, leaving accused coaches with clean records and valid teaching certificates.
• With all of these system failures, parents are the last line of defense for female athletes. But too often, parents ignore the warning signs of sexual misconduct. Some parents suspected abuse and did little to stop it, trusting the coaches while doubting their young accusers.
Most states have enacted legislation to require fingerprint and criminal background checks on prospective employees which appears to be one successful approach. However, these procedures often do not elicit information regarding prior complaints or investigations that may have occurred during the time of employment. Most recently, two states have now passed laws requiring districts to specifically check prior employment for misconduct records. Such has been the case in both Washington, pushed in great part due to the study conducted by the Seattle Times (Willmsen, 2006), and Michigan.
Districts in those states are now legally required to submit a specific documented request to prior employers. The requests are generally designed to identify any record of misconduct, including allegations or investigations, in the records of the prior employer. It also holds harmless the prior district/s and their employees from releasing information, including rebuttals, to the new district.
To obtain that critical personnel misconduct information, new hires must agree to sign a prior employer release form (or current employer in the case of substitutes that work in multiple districts). The form is designed to identify any possible problems on file. However, most districts do not require the form until after the person is hired or working. The new district may allow the prior district/s to wait as long as 20 business days before responding. This critical time lag enables a predator to have personal contact with many, many students.
Clearly, school districts have an obligation to ensure the safety of students in their educational system and there are districts that have enacted very specific and detailed procedures for pre-employment background checks. As districts struggle to find solutions to this issue, they also commonly share the problem of a lack of resources to allocate staff time to conduct such prior employment checks. There are companies that have worked with school districts to provide a number of HR solutions and have a product that can assist districts with the prior employment background check function.
Online Previous Employment Check
Online services create a cost-effective and much more efficient system than making telephone calls or “pushing” paper forms to elicit specific information from prior employers, including misconduct. This process can be utilized to check records for all potential employees, including current substitutes. The system uses a web-based tool to process prior and current employment background check information. School districts do not need to install or maintain any hardware or software.
The electronic process is simple (see Appendix A). A hiring member district enters new employee information into the online system. The system automatically generates a unique access code and directions which are emailed or given to the new employee. The new employee receives the email, clicks on the link, and logs into the system with their unique code. The new employee completes a simple form, identifying all prior and current employers, both in and out of education, including employment date ranges. The information displays on a district approved release form. Meeting the requirements of the Global and National Commerce Act (E-Sign Act) signed into law in June of 2000, the system should guide the new employee through an electronic signature and verification process.
The prior employer/s immediately receives an email with a request for the background information. The email includes a link back to the employee specific form stored within the system, which only requires a simple click and entry of a unique access code provided to that employer. Where there is no e-mail address, the district may optionally print the release form and send it to the prior employer via FAX or mail. The prior employer completes the background questionnaire and submits the report.
The underlying database captures and provides immediate access to all of the information for the employer, including specific reports. “Hits” are marked in red. Employers are now able to do in minutes what has previously taken hours, and they have a comprehensive database that is tracking their records. Districts using an online dispatching system may easily do “sweeps” of all current substitutes each year.
Using the economy and efficiency of the Internet, school districts now have another tool to use against those that would put school children at risk. While the statistics regarding these predators present a challenge to develop and manage a counter measure, nothing compares to the resulting damage to the student victims. For this reason alone, it is imperative that measures be taken to do as much as possible to ensure the safety of our children.
Hendrie, C. (1998) A Trust Betrayed. Education Week
Kher, U. and Montlake, S., (2006) John Mark Karr's Strange Life as a Teacher, Time
Willmsen, C. and O’Hagan, M., (2003) "Other cases of the system failing," Seattle Times
Willmsen, C. and O’Hagan, M., (2003) "Other cases of schools hiring a coach despite knowing about his past," Seattle Times
Willmsen, C., (2004) "Predatory teachers, coaches face tighter scrutiny in new laws," Seattle Times