Hidden from View
Few fired for physical abuse; Severe sanctions for educators more likely in sexual cases
By Jill Riepenhoff and Jennifer Smith Richards, The Columbus Dispatch, November 18, 2007

The Ohio Department of Education has disciplined more than 1,700 educators since 2000, but it didn't unveil the reasons for 80 cases until recently. About half of those involved a teacher physically abusing a student.

Some examples:

  • An art teacher at a Dayton elementary school was given a new license after completing 10 hours of anger management. He had shoved a second-grader and thrown a chair across the room to get the attention of the class. No one was hit.
  • A Columbus middle-school teacher was issued a written reprimand after he was convicted of disorderly conduct for choking an unruly boy so hard that he broke the boy's skin. The teacher blamed the school's leaders, who he said failed to control students' behavior.
  • A Highland County special-education teacher was suspended for a year for grabbing the face of an 11-year-old student who has cerebral palsy. A hearing officer recommended her license be revoked. The state school board opted for the lesser sentence.
  • A Cleveland-area gym teacher lost his license and was convicted of misdemeanor assault for dropping an 11-year-old on his face on a gym floor. The incident began when the boy, a special-education student, walked when he was supposed to run laps. He suffered head injuries.
  • A principal at a Lorain County charter school received a written reprimand for dragging a second-grader down a hall. A teacher who witnessed the incident said the boy was upset because he wasn't allowed to hold his apple.

How to know

The Dispatch filed public-records requests with school districts that had employed teachers reprimanded for physically abusing a student. How they responded:

  • Provided records: Celina, Dublin, Goshen, Ironton (had no information about teacher's misconduct), Lorain Community School, Mansfield, Osnaburg, Piqua, Toledo, Tuslaw, Western Reserve and Wood County Educational Service Center. Many of those districts took about two weeks to comply.
  • Provided incomplete records: Plain. Columbus provided some educators' files but still hasn't provided dozens of others from a July records request.
  • Responded but provided no records: Canton, Cleveland, Dayton, Erie-Huron-Ottawa Educational Service Center and Mayfield.
  • Didn't respond: Aurora, Lima, North Central, Strongsville and Xenia.

Where to check:

Learn about disciplined teachers by reading "The ABCs of Betrayal" and follow-up stories at www.Dispatch.com/teachers. The site also includes links to a searchable state Department of Education database.

Teachers reprimanded for slapping, kicking or choking students are more likely to return to the classroom than those who kiss, caress or talk dirty to them.

Newly unsealed information from the Ohio Department of Education highlights the disparity in punishment for teachers who harm students. There also are wide disparities in discipline handed out for physical abuse and neglect of students.

For example, one teacher lifted an 11-year-old above his head and then slammed the student face-first to the floor. The state yanked the teacher's license. A principal grabbed an unruly second-grader by the foot and dragged him down a hallway. In that case, state education officials responded with their most common reaction to physical abuse of students: a written reprimand and a return to work. By contrast, most educators who sexually abuse kids are banned from school jobs.

Since 2000, at least 59 Ohio educators have been punished for physically abusing or neglecting students. Most of those cases were secret until the Ohio Department of Education recently unveiled the reasons for their punishments. At least two-thirds had been referred to the department from child-protection agencies, which notify the department only when the allegations have been proved.

Yet state investigators determined that, in 70 percent of discipline cases involving child abuse, the misconduct didn't warrant the most severe sanctions -- suspension or revocation of an educator's license. And those sanctions were arranged by the Office of Professional Conduct staff, never presented to an administrative judge or sent to the State Board of Education.

The department says it reviews allegations of physical abuse case by case and pursues the appropriate punishment in each situation.

"You hear abuse but you want to make sure they get a fair shake," said James I. Miller, the new leader of the professional conduct office. "Every case that comes across, we try to look through the child's eyes first. You've just got to listen."

By contrast, educators who sexually abuse children were likely to be banned from the profession. In the past seven years, the state revoked licenses in more than 80 percent of cases in which teachers fondled, kissed or raped children.

YVETTE MCGEE BROWN: The disparity is outrageous. Abuse, whether physical or sexual, is wrong.
The disparity is outrageous, said Yvette McGee Brown, president of the Center for Child and Family Advocacy. "Abuse, whether physical or sexual, is wrong."

Allowing teachers to return to the classroom without a public hearing "is a failure of the system," she said. "A child has been abused and the message is, 'It's OK.' "

The department revealed on Nov. 1 the reasons it disciplined 80 teachers, coaches, tutors, administrators and other licensed staff members. The lack of information in those cases was highlighted in a Dispatch series, "The ABCs of Betrayal." It was the result of a 10-month investigation into the flaws in Ohio's teacher-discipline system. State education officials shielded those cases from the public, saying they were private because the investigations were prompted by a tip from a children services agency. The attorney general said that was illegal. The state Education Department doesn't have punishment guidelines for every kind of misconduct.

Agency officials use a broadly defined violation known as "conduct unbecoming" to reprimand educators for wrongdoing including lying, stealing, and beating and molesting children.

Written reprimands are often the best choice, the department said, because in some cases, evidence is shaky and witnesses can't or won't testify. In those instances, the department doesn't want to take the case to a hearing and risk losing, department spokeswoman Karla Carruthers said in an e-mail.

"That could lead to an educator walking away without any form of discipline," she said.

McGee Brown said it's time to develop behavioral standards for teachers. The state board has offered guidance on student conduct, such as the model policy on bullying, and this year began requiring districts to report those incidents.

"But we're not as willing to take as strong a stand when there's an adult? It's really unbelievable," McGee Brown said. "People go into this line of work because they care about kids. What happens that they become so dismissive?"

Part of the blame belongs to the state's failure to ban corporal punishment, said Nadine Block, a retired school psychologist who now is the executive director of the Center for Effective Discipline. The center, based in Columbus, works to outlaw corporal punishment in schools.

Seventeen school districts -- mostly in the northeastern and southern parts of the state -- allow corporal punishment, defined as intentionally causing pain. Such punishment, typically carried out by paddling or spanking, has been banned by all central Ohio school districts and in all Catholic schools in the state.

" 'Stop sanctioning corporal punishment' would send teachers a good message," Block said. Right now, "It sends the message that hitting one another to solve problems is appropriate. Teachers should be better role models than that."

A new law signed by Gov. Ted Strickland last week in response to the Dispatch investigation of the teacher-discipline system requires the state department to propose a list of punishments for specific offenses. Those are due to the legislature by the end of the year. Also, the department must come up with a code of conduct to spell out how teachers should behave.

Miller, the new professional-conduct leader, said he will examine how the department will punish educators who physically abuse or neglect students.

"We'll have our eyes on that from here on out," he said.

jriepenhoff@dispatch.com

jsmithrichards@dispatch.com


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