Laws, customs changing to protect schoolkids, but gaps remain
Aug. 30, 1997
As children return to the nation's schools, they are safer from the rare teacher who would harm them, thanks to a steady reinforcing of laws coast-to-coast overseeing those in the classroom.
More states, districts and schools each year adopt background screening measures for school employees, though about a dozen states still regard this as too costly or burdensome.
Customs are changing, too _ including the custom of administrators moving unfit teachers along quietly, even secretly, said Douglas Bates, of Utah's Office of Education. Today, there's an evolving legal ``duty to warn,'' which principals and superintendents are held to more and more.
Indeed, disciplinary actions and lawsuits over alleged ``indifference'' to pupils' needs can be found from Florida to California.
In one case, Florida's Education Practices Commission first revoked the license of teacher Norman Bailey, accused of pressuring students for sex. Then the agency went after his principal, Raymond Rainone, saying he ``failed to make reasonable effort to protect'' students.
Rainone has just completed two years' probation, a punishment he considers unjustified. He works as a district administrator in Sarasota, where a local inquiry found no wrongdoing. It was he, Rainone said in an interview, who turned Bailey in long after another district hid the teacher's misdeeds with a secrecy agreement.
``That's a tough thing,'' he said, ``to say you're responsible for everything that goes on.''
In Michigan, the legislature banned secrecy agreements like one that silenced authorities in Flint from passing on information about an alleged teacher-seducer who moved from there to Miami. Florida students said the practice continued; one student killed herself.
``It seems to me comical that we have to put in a state law requiring school administrators to report what they have a moral obligation to report,'' said Flint prosecutor Arthur Busch.
In Kansas, a student's $8 million lawsuit accuses administrators of ``negligent failure to warn'' about a teacher's history of abuse.
Ann Turnbow, the mother of an Arkansas student suing administrators for alleged ``indifference'' to a teacher-coach's seduction, said: ``If they had been doing their job this man wouldn't have been able to do the things he did.''
Meanwhile, efforts continue to close gaps in laws protecting students.
California closed what a lawmaker called ``an absurd loophole'' by enacting a 1994 law permanently revoking credentials of teachers convicted of felony sex offenses or distributing drugs to minors. Previously, such teachers could have credentials restored a year after suspension. Four had returned to the classroom this way in the preceding four years.
In New York, Donna Covello says she's fighting to close loopholes.
The president of SESAME, or Survivors of Educator Sexual Abuse and Misconduct Emerge, she pressed legislators for passage of several measures, including a ``Position of Trust'' bill. That bill would have made it a felony punishable by up to 15 years imprisonment for educators and others to sexually abuse children in their care.
She blamed a teachers union _ which maintains a political action committee that spent nearly $1 million last year on statehouse campaigns _ for blocking the legislation in the just-ended session.
Linda Rosenblatt, spokeswoman for the 375,000-member New York State United Teachers, said: ``We have no stake in keeping people in the classroom who don't belong there. We do have a stake in seeing that people's due process rights are protected.''
The position-of-trust bill didn't clearly define who holds such a position, she said.
Similarly, measures to require background checks have had problems _ for example, a proposed check of prospective teachers' names against a state child abuse registry. The problem: Baseless allegations, sometimes made during divorces, can reach the registry.
``These are complicated (issues),'' Ms. Rosenblatt said.
SESAME's Ms. Covello sees different complications. ``I don't think many people understand. The damage of being sexually abused is horrible.''
When she was 14, a school counselor began a two-year period of molesting her, she said. It was not until two decades later, after she attempted suicide and overcame anorexia, that she finally filed a complaint.
That act of will three years ago led to another: directly confronting the counselor, by then a school dean. ``I wore a body wire. My fear was he wasn't going to talk,'' she said. ``But he did.''
He was forced to resign.