Minnesota teachers in misconduct cases rarely return to classrooms

6:27 AM, Oct 23, 2007   |    comments
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Action against teacher licenses in Minn.

The Associated Press filed a Data Practices Act request to obtain all state actions against Minnesota teacher licenses from 2001 through 2005. Here's how some of the results break down:
 
  • In all, the state Board of Teaching suspended, revoked or denied the licenses of 134 teachers.
     
  • Of that total, 69 of the cases involved some type of sexual misconduct.
     
  • The other 65 cases included failures to meet professional requirements, gross incompetence, physically assaulting students or other staff, and other types of inappropriate behavior or transgressions. Such cases typically resulted in 6-month to one-year license suspensions.
     
  • Twenty-five teachers from 2001 to 2005 had their licenses automatically and permanently revoked, the punishment for any license-holder who is convicted of felony criminal sexual conduct. Because of the way the Board of Teaching keeps its records, it's not clear among those cases how many involved victims who were students or minors.
     
  • However, at least 20 of the cases from 2001 to 2005 involved teachers who were accused of and sanctioned for some type of sexual misconduct that involved students or minors -- a range of bad behavior that included teachers who had sexual relationships with students, made inappropriate sexual remarks or overtures to them, or showed them pornography.
     
  • Other sexual misconduct cases didn't directly involve students, types of behavior that included teachers who viewed or downloaded pornography on their school computers, or were arrested for indecent exposure or hiring prostitutes.
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    Wisconsin: 44 teachers punished in 5 years

    Forty-four Wisconsin teachers lost their license because of sexual misconduct between 2001 and 2005.

    An Associated Press review of state Department of Public Instruction records show nearly three-fourths of those cases involve a student victim.

    Wisconsin's figures were gathered as part of a seven-month investigation in which AP 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.

    In Wisconsin, the AP found 251 teachers had their licenses revoked during that five-year period for offenses ranging from overdue taxes to sex with students to drunken driving.

    The 44 sexual misconduct revocations represent 18 percent of those revocations and were only a fraction of the 100,000 or so licensed educators who worked in Wisconsin classrooms each of those years.

    State law requires school district administrators to notify DPI of any employee convicted of a sex crime. They also must inform DPI whenever an employee is fired or quits amid suspicions of immoral conduct.

    The Deer River math teacher was attracted to his student -- so much so that he recorded his thoughts in a series of notes to her. "I like thinking about your body, I just like thinking about you," he wrote in one. In another, he told her, "I am scared, scared that someone will try to break us apart." The state of Minnesota suspended Patrick Holm's teaching license for six months for the letters, and required that he go through counseling before he could renew it. Today he's teaching in another district -- one of a handful of Minnesota teachers who found new work in recent years at schools where the administrators didn't know about their problematic pasts. "I was unaware of it," Herman-Norcross Community School Superintendent Tom Knoll told The Associated Press when asked about the teacher's suspension in 2003. Knoll wasn't superintendent when Holm was hired. He said if he had been and had uncovered Holm's licensing record, he probably "never would have been interviewed." Holm did not respond to a phone message or e-mail messages seeking comment. Knoll said no problems have been reported during the teacher's time at Herman-Norcross. Holm's background emerged as part of a seven-month examination by the AP of sexual misconduct by teachers around the nation. In Minnesota, the AP found 69 teachers whose licenses had been revoked, suspended or denied from 2001 to 2005 for some kind of sexual misconduct. Almost one-third of those were cases involving student victims. Across the country, sexual misconduct allegations led states to take action against the licenses of 2,570 educators during that period. 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. Minnesota's number is a tiny fraction of the state's roughly 52,800 licensed teachers. But the fact that some schools are missing the problematic pasts of teacher applicants is cause for concern, legislators and others said. "Looking at it as a grandmother, I wouldn't want my granddaughter in his classroom," Rep. Mindy Greiling, the chairwoman of a House education finance committee, said of Holm. "At the very least, you want someone in leadership at the school to know about it." Troubled pasts can elude a background check in several ways. Schools are required to do one through the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, but that check finds only felony and gross misdemeanor charges -- no use when a teacher was never charged with a crime. The Minnesota Board of Teaching maintains an online database of teacher licenses, but the database doesn't list past actions when a teacher's license has been reinstated. "Is that a hole? Absolutely it is," said state Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, a former chairman of the House Education Committee and a school administrator in St. Paul. "That information should follow an individual." The Board of Teaching sends a weekly e-mail to superintendents that includes any licensure actions against teachers in the previous week. Nancy Triplett, the board's teacher ethics specialist, also said the board shares license information with any school district official who calls to ask -- including past actions against teachers who eventually had their licenses reinstated. Triplett said she was unaware of any plan to add historic data to the board's online license lookup. She said no system that tries to weed out problem teachers could be perfect. "One teacher that takes advantage of a student is one too many," Triplett said. "But the thing we have to remind ourselves constantly here is that on any given day, there's about 50,000 licensed teachers in Minnesota schools who are behaving as they should." Besides Herman-Norcross, two other Minnesota districts currently employ teachers whose licenses were suspended at some point between 2001 and 2005 while employed at other schools. In neither of those districts did the superintendent know about those suspensions. George Berndt, superintendent at the Ellsworth Public School District, and Tony Scallon, superintendent of the Minneapolis Transitions Charter School, said after checking hiring records that they believed the proper processes were followed when they hired the respective teachers. Berndt hired Dean Wieck, a kindergarten teacher, driver's ed teacher and coach, not knowing that his right to renew his teaching license was suspended for a year in 2003 after he pleaded guilty to an indecent exposure charge. Still, Berndt said, Wieck "has been doing a super job for us. You've blown my socks off here." Berndt later told AP he confronted Wieck, who apologized and said he did not reveal the incident during the hiring process because he was embarrassed. Wieck did not return two phone messages left by AP seeking comment. "I just felt that with all the recommendations and the transcripts and everything else that we had the information we needed," Berndt said. "It all seemed that everything was in place." Scallon, superintendent at the Minnesota Transitions Charter School in Minneapolis, similarly did not know that Randy Hammond, a work experience coordinator who teaches a class on careers, had his right to renew his license suspended for most of a school year when, while teaching in the Anoka-Hennepin School District in 2003, he pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct after being charged with indecent exposure. Hammond did not return two phone messages left by the AP seeking comment. After reviewing the hiring process, Scallon defended Hammond, saying he -- and any teacher in a similar circumstance -- fulfilled the terms of suspension, and that by renewing his license the Board of Teaching approved him as fit to be hired by schools. "If they thought he shouldn't be a teacher, they wouldn't have licensed him," Scallon said, adding that he didn't consider it problematic that he didn't know about Hammond's background. Scallon called Hammond an excellent employee. None of the three superintendents said they had immediate plans to alter their hiring process. Both Greiling and Buesgens said they thought the Legislature could easily revise the teacher hiring process so that schools would be guaranteed to get information about past action against an applicant's license. Charlie Kyte, the executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, has been lobbying in recent years to beef up the background check process. Under his proposal, school districts would retain private security firms to perform background checks that are more comprehensive than the BCA's, taking in not just criminal histories but also any past accusations made against them, an FBI fingerprint check and other information about their backgrounds. Kyte said some state lawmakers have resisted because of privacy concerns. Kyte hadn't proposed including information about past license suspensions against teachers, but he said that's worth considering as well so that school administrators have all the information possible. "In today's world," Kyte said. "You want to know as much as you can about people." By Patrick Condon, Associated Press Writer

    (Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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