Heeding a steady drumbeat of sexual misconduct cases involving teachers, at least 15 states are now considering stronger oversight and tougher punishment for educators who take advantage of their students.
Lawmakers say they are concerned about an increasingly well-documented phenomenon: While the vast majority of America’s teachers are committed professionals, there also is a persistent problem with sexual misconduct in U.S. schools. When abuse happens, administrators too often fail to let others know about it, and too many legal loopholes let offenders stay in the classroom.
Advocates include governors, education superintendents and legislative leaders.
“We’ve got to be on a bully pulpit with our school districts,” said Missouri state Rep. Jane Cunningham. The Republican’s legislation would eliminate statutes of limitation for sexual misconduct, allowing victims to come forward and bring charges against abusers no matter how many years had passed since the crime.
The ideas emerging in state capitals come at a time when U.S. media have been reporting steadily on individual cases, along with more in-depth examinations of the problem.
A nationwide Associated Press investigation published in October found 2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered or sanctioned from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct. Experts who track sexual abuse say those cases are representative of a much deeper problem because of underreporting.
There are roughly 3 million public school teachers nationwide.
In eight states, leaders pushing changes said the AP investigation had inspired their proposals. Others said they had grown concerned from individual cases of abuse in their states, or other news reports that looked at the problem locally or in their state.
In New York, Gov. Eliot Spitzer supports automatic suspension of teachers convicted of sex crimes, which now requires lengthy hearings. In Maine, Gov. John Baldacci hopes to share the names of abusive teachers with other states, which a 1913 confidentiality law there prohibits. In Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist endorsed federal legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Adam Putnam, a Florida Republican, to create a national databank of abusive teachers, a hot line for complaints and federal funds for state investigators.
Some states are looking to increase penalties, expand background checks or broaden their ability to police charter schools for abuse, like Indiana, Massachusetts and Utah. Kentucky and South Carolina are considering making it illegal for teachers to have sex with older students.
Several states are tackling a major problem — the loopholes that allow problem teachers to move from one school district to another, or from one state to another. The AP investigation found that what education officials commonly call “passing the trash” happens when districts allow a teacher to quietly leave a school, or fail to report problems to state authorities, or fail to check with state authorities before hiring a teacher, among other glitches.
In eight states, legislators are pursuing changes to close those gaps, including California, Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, Virginia, Washington state and West Virginia.
“Despite acts of misconduct that were threatening and dangerous in schools, there is a track record of people going on to another school district and finding employment,” said Missouri state Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons. “The new school district may get the truth, but they don’t get the whole truth about this person’s background. They may find out the dates of service, they may find out this person was dismissed, but there really is no other information forthcoming.”
His legislation aims to get school employees and districts to share all information about job-hunting teachers, including whether those educators sexually abused their students, by granting administrators civil immunity from lawsuits.
Other states approach the same problem differently. A Colorado measure being drafted would penalize school districts and state officials that fail to report problem teachers, while a West Virginia proposal would open school officials themselves to punishment. Florida would bar any confidentiality agreement between districts and teachers, and require districts to report every firing to the state.
In California, one proposal would close a loophole that bars the teacher credentialing commission from revealing the reason teachers lose their licenses if they plead no contest to an offense.
Under no contest pleas, defendants are punished as if they pleaded guilty, but retain the right to challenge the charges against them in lawsuits and other proceedings. Such deals have meant public records were unclear about why educator licenses were sanctioned in dozens of cases, the AP found.
“You should not be able to plead no contest to a sex offense just so you can continue teaching,” said state Sen. Bob Margett. The measure means teachers who plead no contest would immediately lose their license, and the reason for the revocation would be public record.
Some say the latest legislation is just the beginning.
South Carolina has created a new committee of parents, teachers, social workers and prosecutors to study the problem and come back with new ideas.
Though small statistically, the number of abusive teachers is too high, South Carolina Education Superintendent Jim Rex wrote after reading the AP report.
“I am nonetheless outraged by any incident in which an adult entrusted with the care of one of South Carolina’s students violates that student. The ramifications for that student, his or her family, and the community as a whole are painful and long lasting,” he wrote.
In Utah, the numbers of abuses flat-out shocked state Rep. Carl Wimmer. “These things happen a lot more often than parents would think,” he said. “It seems we do have an unacceptable high amount of children who get violated in the classroom. One is too many.”