Ethics Data Online - Articles

"What school districts can do"
Christine Willmsen and Maureen O'Hagan, Seattle Times staff reporters
Sunday, December 15, 2003

What can school districts do to help thwart sexual abuse by coaches? State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles has some ideas.

The Seattle-area Democrat and former California educator said she was "stunned" to learn Washington law doesn't require schools to check whether a prospective coach or teacher has a sexual-misconduct history. The law says only that schools "may" check for such complaints — and many schools simply don't, a Times investigation found.

Kohl-Welles has been trying to change that. Last legislative session, she proposed a bill that would have required school districts to ask previous employers for a teacher's or coach's sexual-misconduct records before hiring him — and the previous district would have been required to provide that information within 20 days.

The bill also would have prohibited schools from entering into settlement agreements with teachers and coaches promising to keep sexual-misconduct complaints secret. It never got to the floor for a vote.

She plans to introduce a similar bill in 2004.

"There is no reason school districts should have sexual misconduct taking place," she said.
Rocky Jackson, a Yakima lawyer who has represented school districts for 20 years, has another idea. His concern is the high cost of firing a teacher who has committed sexual misconduct.

In Washington, when a coach fights a firing, a district has to keep paying him — and a substitute — until a hearing officer rules that the school district was justified.

" If you're going to fire somebody, they're fired," Jackson proposed. "They don't get any more money, they don't get anything. If they prove you wrong later on, they get their back pay. Just like when you fire anybody else on the street."

But the law can't do everything that's needed, other experts said. What's really necessary is a change in attitude among school officials, said Stephen Rubin, chairman of the Whitman College psychology department and a co-author of a book on teacher sexual misconduct.

Schools need to set down — and enforce — clear guidelines on when and how it may be appropriate to touch students or spend time alone with them, he said.

If teachers and coaches know that inappropriate comments or touching won't be tolerated, they're less likely to cross the line, Rubin said.

Detective Joe Beard, who's in charge of sex-offender notification for the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office, said that school administrators — as well as parents — need better training in identifying and acting on signs of sexual abuse. And school officials also need to follow state law that requires them to report suspected abuse to police within 48 hours.