By Steve Gunn
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – At least it’s a step in the right direction.
The Illinois Supreme Court recently ruled that a school district can be sued in some instances for failing to warn another district about hiring a former teacher who was forced out due to sexual misconduct.
The ruling seems like nothing more than common sense. But amazingly, the high court overturned a state appeals court decision that said the first district could not be sued because it was not responsible for the behavior of the teacher after he went to work in another district.
In other words, the appeals court said school districts are on their own when it comes to screening teacher candidates. If they fail to detect that they are about to hire someone else’s trash, that’s their problem.
Thank goodness the state Supreme Court had the good sense to put a dent in the sickening teacher union game of protecting even their most evil members, and the tendency of school districts to take the easy way out.
The ruling rightfully determined that school officials “should not protect themselves at the expense of the children we trust them to teach and protect,” Lyn Schollet, general counsel for the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, told MyFoxChicago.com.
And what exactly are these schools protecting themselves from?
The sad fact is that it can take several years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal costs for a school district to terminate an unfit teacher, even for sexual misconduct, due to local union collective bargaining agreements and state tenure laws.
So instead of doing the right thing and publicly dismissing bad teachers, districts have frequently negotiated quiet agreements with their unions that sometimes include severance payments and letters of recommendation for further employment.
In far too many cases, these teachers have found unsuspecting districts to take them on, and children end up paying the awful price for the silence of the adults.
Was the court ruling too timid?
The Illinois Supreme Court case involved a teacher named Jon White, who was forced to resign from McLean County Unit District No. 5 after two suspensions for inappropriate sexual conduct. One suspension involved his viewing of pornographic materials on a school computer, while another involved suggestive comments he made to a fifth-grade student.
Yet White applied for a job at the nearby Urbana school district with a positive letter of recommendation from the McLean County district, according to MyFoxChicago.com. And McLean school officials filled out an employment verification form that did not make clear that he left the district before the end of the school year.
White went on to sexually abuse eight girls in the Urbana district. He was eventually sentenced to 48 years in prison.
Officials in the McLean school district clearly understood that White posed a risk to students. An email from a district assistant superintendent to a teachers union official, sent shortly after White’s arrest in Urbana, said the following:
“I don’t know the specific charges, but it appears to be much worse than the issues he faced here. I’m glad we took the steps we did to get him out of the district. I believe it was you who said that he was on the path to further problems.”
Surprisingly, it was not the misleading letter of recommendation that lost the case for the McLean district.
In fact, the court ruling “did not say school officials have a broad duty to warn other schools about potentially dangerous teachers. In this case, it was the action of providing false, or at least incomplete information on the employment verification form that opens the door to a lawsuit,” according to a news report.
Ellyn Bullock, the attorney representing several of the victims from the Urbana school district, said she thought the verdict was a clear indication that schools have a responsibility to warn others about potentially dangerous teachers, and that “the safety message will get through.”
We’re not so sure the entire message will get through, given the limited scope of the court decision and the timid reaction of state lawmakers.
For instance, the White case reportedly inspired Illinois lawmakers to pass a new statute meant to address the situation. It said “school officials who get a request for information about a job applicant are required to speak up if they have reported the job seeker to a state child welfare agency,” the news report said.
The McLean district would not have been guilty of violating that law, because administrators never reported White’s behavior to anybody. Why would they, since their obvious intention was to remove him as quickly and quietly as possible?
The new law falls woefully short of forcing school officials to alert authorities when sexually questionable behavior occurs, and to make serious efforts to warn other districts about a teacher’s tendencies.
This was one case, regarding one particular situation, and the ruling may be too narrow to scare other districts into doing the right thing under similar circumstances.
Not everyone recognizes the problem
As bizarre as it might seem, there are those who defend the ability of school districts to keep quiet about problem teachers they move out the door, and write letters of recommendation on their behalf.
In the White case, the appeals court ruled that districts may only be held liable for “known acts of harassment subject to their control.” Once the teacher leaves, it’s not their problem.
Two state Supreme Court justices disagreed with the majority opinion in the final state disposition of the White case. They didn’t believe the silence of McLean County school officials “met the limited circumstances under which public officials can be sued for their performance in office.”
Barry Forbes, the associate executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, said all teacher resignation cases end up with written agreements and frequently a letter of recommendation, at the request of the employee or union.
Forbes said he never discourages districts from issuing such letters, and he has personally helped many districts prepare them.
“I don’t see that as a concern in that school administrators and principals are reasonably sophisticated people, and it’s not hard to spot an agree-to letter of reference,” Forbes told the news site. “I think, as a practical matter, they are not particularly valuable to the employees.”
Forbes obviously wasn’t talking about letters for sexual offenders. But sometimes such letters fool prospective employers, and the results are tragic.
A few years ago, officials at O’Fallon High School in southern Illinois forced out band director Matthew Lang. While the reasons for his departure were not clear, he indicated that his sexual relationship with an underage student played a role.
He was asked to resign in 2007 but was given a shining letter of recommendation for future employment, based on a request from the president of his local teachers union.
Lang was subsequently hired by nearby Alton High School, whose administrators hired him largely based on the recommendation. A few years later he was arrested for having sex with an underage student and he’s now serving a long prison term.
Things clearly have to change
U. S. Rep. Michael Fitzpatrick (D-Pennsylvania) has introduced federal legislation to put a halt to the practice of quietly passing on sexually abusive teachers.
The main target of the new law would be school administrators, who could serve prison time for helping an employee secure employment in another school, if they know that employee has engaged in sex with minors.
It should be broadened to also target union officials who defend the teachers and sometimes broker deals on their behalf that allow them to work in other schools.
More states could push through legislation streamlining the process for firing teachers accused of sexual misconduct. In too many states, tenure laws require a long and expensive process to dump a teacher accused of even the most serious of offenses.
Fitzpatrick’s legislation is named the Jeremy Bell Act, after a 12-year-old West Virginia student who was sexually abused and murdered by his principal. The principal had been hired at the West Virginia school after losing his job at a Pennsylvania school following allegations of sexual misconduct.
The West Virginia school that Jeremy Bell attended was only given letters of recommendations from former employers, according to Congressman Fitzpatrick.