GAO study finds school districts nationally are hiring and retaining employees with histories of sexual misconduct

Education Week reports that the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a study finding that schools in some cases have hired individuals with histories of sexual misconduct as teachers, coaches, janitors, and administrators, partly because of lax systems of background checks. The GAO documented 15 cases in which individuals guilty of past misconduct were hired or retained by schools. In 11 of those cases, the individuals in question had previously targeted children, and in six of them, the offenders used their new positions to abuse more children. The study was  requested by Rep. George Miller, (D-CA), who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor.

GAO was asked to examine the circumstances under which adults with histories of sexual misconduct were hired or kept on the job. In one case cited by the GAO, an Ohio teacher who had been forced to resign because of inappropriate conduct with female students was nonetheless given a recommendation by a school superintendent calling him “an outstanding teacher.” He was later hired by a neighboring district, where he was convicted for sexual battery against a 6th grade girl.

The report also described the case of a California administrative school employee who was convicted a decade before of restraining and molesting a minor, the GAO report found. A school where he worked was notified of his arrest and conviction by police in 2000, and again by the GAO in 2010, but did not fire him, investigators said. Only after the GAO referred the case to the state attorney general’s office and the California Department of Education was the employee placed on administrative leave. He has since resigned, according to the report.

The GAO report points to several reasons why individuals with histories of misconduct slip through the hiring system and end up in schools. In some cases, school districts allow teachers who might have been fired or disciplined for sexually inappropriate actions to resign. This means that these employees are able to truthfully tell new employers that they had never been fired from a previous position. In 10 of the 15 cases documented by the GAO, school officials did not conduct performance background checks prior to hiring the individuals in question.

“The documents we reviewed and the individuals we spoke with indicated that the schools chose to forgo these checks for a variety of reasons,” the GAO said, “including that they felt the process was too time-consuming and costly, or that the positions in question would not require daily interaction with children.” But those officials were often mistaken. In some of the cases, another pattern of abuse followed. In other instances, school districts’ criminal background checks were simply inadequate.

Source: Education Week, 12/17/10, By Sean Cavanagh

[Editor’s Note: GAO’s report is available at the first link below. A previous report, the result of a seven-month investigation by the Associated Press  (AP) of disciplinary records in all 50 states and the District of Columbia,  found 2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered, or sanctioned from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct. Young people were the victims in at least 1,801 of the cases, and more than 80% of those were students. At least half the educators who were punished by their states also were convicted of crimes related to their misconduct. A summary of the news article on the report from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is available at second link below.

In January 2010, The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit (IL, IN, WI) upheld a district court’s dismissal of an action brought by a student who had been sexually abused by a teacher.  The student and her family sued the school district in which the teacher had previously worked.  He had been allowed to resign from that district after the administration received numerous reports of inappropriate touching of female students.  He then went to work at another school district where he engaged in similar behavior and eventually sexually abused the plaintiff.  The Seventh Circuit determined that the first employer school district lacked the necessary control over the teacher once he was employed at the second district, and therefore could not be “deliberately indifferent” to the harassment and therefore liable for his actions under Title IX.  A summary of the decision appears at the third link below.

The Mail Tribune reported in July 2010 that the Oregon legislature had passed a statute effective July 1 aimed at ending the practice in which an educator facing discipline for misconduct may negotiate a deal with a school district to resign in exchange for the district concealing his or her record of misconduct. The law requires districts to send a form to a job candidate’s three previous employers requesting disclosure of any past incidents of sexual misconduct, including resignations in lieu of terminations. School districts also are bound by law to furnish that information within 20 days. A summary of the article appears at the fourth link below.]

GAO report

NSBA School Law Issues pages on AP report

NSBA School Law pages on Doe-2 v. McLean County Unity Sch. Dist. No. 5

NSBA Legal Clips archive on Oregon statute addressing employee misconduct

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