Dirty Secrets: Why sexually abusive teachers aren't stopped
By Jane Elizabeth Zemel and Steve Twedt, Post-Gazette Staff Writers
Post-Gazette, October 31, 1999

First of a three-part series.

A small but dangerous contingent of sexual predators lurks among the dedicated teachers in our nation's classrooms

Justin Kelly, with his mother, Kim Shrum, was 13 years old when his La Porte, Texas, homeroom teacher and football coach molested him. Michael J. Kluck was convicted of felony sex offenses. Justin, now 18, is suing the Nebraska school district that earlier had allowed Kluck to resign quietly after he was accused of misconduct there. (Brett Coomer, Associated Press)

Children are often taught in school to look out for adults who might hurt them. But sometimes, the grown-ups in their own classrooms are the ones who could do the most harm.

Sexual misconduct by educators is a volatile, sensitive subject that's been whispered about in school hallways and behind closed office doors as long as there have been schools. But a lack of public acknowledgment has helped the problem to spread and the bad teachers to circulate.

It's a problem that resonates nationally, but accusations of sexual misconduct also have appeared recently in Pittsburgh-area schools.

Joseph Doherty, an Avonworth School District teacher, was cleared of criminal charges but resigned under pressure after being accused of sexually assaulting a student in 1997. He was able to get a teaching job in Maryland this year even though Avonworth school officials had sent his case to the state Department of Education for review.

Dennis L. Bair, a music teacher in Burgettstown Area School District, Washington County, was convicted in June 1997 on two counts of indecent assault of a female student. However, he was allowed to surrender his license last year rather than have it revoked. That action effectively sealed his records and could enable him to teach again outside the state.

Gary Serlo taught elementary school in Westmoreland County in the early 1970s before being sent to a Greensburg prison in 1974 for child molestion. His license to teach in Pennsylvania wasn't revoked until last year, though, when he was convicted of molesting three boys in his new school district in New York. Because of an incomplete background check, school officials who hired Serlo never knew that he had served prison time for molestation.

Larry Mihalko, an elementary school teacher in Gateway School District, was charged earlier this year with indecent assault and other crimes. The charges stem from allegations brought by former students -- three pre-teen girls -- who have testified that Mihalko had improperly touched them while they were sitting on his lap, including putting his hand under their clothing.

Mihalko's attorney has said that hugging, patting and holding students on his lap was part of Mihalko's teaching style. Mihalko's trial is scheduled to begin in January.

Accused teachers represent a small percentage of our nation's educators. But those who do abuse students often abuse more than one, and the damage they do can be devastating.

The Post-Gazette has examined 727 cases across the U.S. in which an educator has lost his or her license for sex offenses during the past five years, and has found some disturbing trends. Among them:

The number of teachers who have lost their licenses because of sex offenses has increased nearly 80 percent since 1994.

Several of those who lost their licenses were caught only after they had been molesting students for many years.

Offending teachers sometimes get help landing another teaching job from a unexpected source -- their former bosses. The practice is so well-known among educators that they refer to it by name. They call it "passing the trash."

Individual states' aggressiveness in detecting and removing predators from the classroom varies widely, and some states do no background checks on teacher applicants at all. There is a private, national clearinghouse that tracks problem teachers but its director admits that states' reporting can be spotty, leaving everyone vulnerable to the so-called "mobile molester."

Even when caught, offending teachers can launch appeals that allow them to retain their teaching certificate for two to three more years. In some cases, those teachers have moved to another state and used that certificate to get a new teaching job until their appeals run out.

Weak communication between the education and criminal branches of state governments means that education officials don't always find out if a teacher has been arrested for sex crimes or other offenses. In one case, Missouri education officials had to send a license-revocation order to a Kansas man who had already begun serving a 90-year sentence for raping a teen-aged girl.

Striking again

Rumors and accusations that William C. Bennett was sexually abusing his male students first surfaced in the early 1980s, when he was teaching in a school in Virginia.

They finally ended at a high school in Akron, Ohio, earlier this year.

Bennett, a guidance counselor, pleaded guilty in May in a case that charged him with having sex with students -- even in his school office.

"If you have ever had a recurring nightmare, then you can probably relate to the last year-and-a-half of my life," one of his victims told the judge at Bennett's trial.

Bennett is now serving a year in jail, has surrendered his teaching certificates, and is registered as a sexual predator. He will never teach again, never devastate another young life.

Or will he?

Kenneth Long did. He was arrested twice in Florida, in 1989 and 1990, for offering students money for sex and was put on three years' probation. Yet he was hired in Alexandria, Va., in 1995 when officials there failed to check for a criminal history; then he moved to Washington, D.C., in February 1998.

In May, a federal grand jury in Washington indicted Long on 35 counts of interstate transportation of a minor with intent to engage in criminal sexual activity. The victim was a 14-year-old student. Long's trial is currently under way in Washington.

Terrible toll

In Pennsylvania, 38 teachers lost their certificates for sex-related offenses from 1997 through 1998, compared to 21 in the two years before that. But even the growing numbers don't reflect the actual toll, experts say.

The problem is not so much the number of offending teachers, it's the number of students a single bad teacher can victimize.

"When they get caught, it's never a case of one act of bad judgment with one child," said Dr. W. Richard Fossey, associate dean of the college of education at Louisiana State University, who has researched teacher discipline cases.

"If you've caught one, you know that the guy has a history."

And all too often, the victimizing teacher has help from an unlikely source -- administrators in his own school. Examples are plentiful:

A Houston-area family has filed suit against a Nebraska school district for allowing a problem teacher to resign, clean out his personnel file and walk away with a letter of recommendation in 1994. Weeks later, he was hired in Texas where, in the first month of classes, he molested their son.

In South Carolina, a young man molested by his teacher also is suing the teacher's former employer, Porter-Gaud School, and has posted his own web site to bring attention to the issue -- http://www.geocities.com/~shawws.

According to the suit, Edward Fischer was forced to resign from a private school in Charleston in 1982 after being accused of molesting a student. Yet administrators agreed to write a favorable letter of recommendation for him in exchange for that resignation, and he continued teaching. In April, Fischer, 71, was convicted of molesting 13 boys.

Four months after teacher Robert Pannier's conduct resulted in a warning against using vulgarity, profanity or sexual innuendo, two administrators in Mendota Heights, Minn., wrote recommendations for him in June 1995. He was hired by another Minnesota school district and taught until early 1998 -- when police arrested him for having sex with a 15-year-old student.

Doherty, the Avonworth School District teacher who resigned after being accused of sexually assaulting a student in 1997, was able to get a teaching job in Prince George's County, Md., this year even though school officials had sent his case to the state Department of Education for review.

Although Avonworth school officials knew that Doherty had applied for the job, Maryland school officials said they didn't know about Doherty's arrest until a Post-Gazette reporter called to question them about their knowledge of his background. After the PG's call, school administrators removed him from his classroom while they investigated.

Doherty had been secretly videotaped by Avonworth officials who had become suspicious of his behavior. On tape, he was seen engaged in what he called "wrestling moves" with a 12-year-old boy in his locked classroom. Even though prosecutors argued that Doherty was obviously sexually aroused in the videotape, the district justice decided that no crime had been committed. The boy and his mother would not testify.

Pennsylvania officials will not comment on the status of his teaching license.

Doherty, 39, no longer works in the Maryland district. He has filed a civil lawsuit against the Avonworth School Board, claiming they defamed his character.

Attitudes vary

The Post-Gazette study of teacher misconduct also shows that aggressiveness in removing predators from the classroom varies widely from state to state. While Ohio requires state and federal background checks, some states, including West Virginia, conduct no background checks on teacher applicants. Others, including Pennsylvania, perform partial checks. This has implications for all states, because the inconsistency in background checks makes it easier for bad teachers to circulate.

The Post-Gazette also found that it commonly takes two to three years, and sometimes longer, before education officials catch up to a license revocation made in another state. This sometimes gives the person time to find a teaching job in another state -- at least until their past offenses emerge.

In 1996, the Oregon agency that oversees teacher certification separately revoked the licenses of two teachers who were accused of making sexual advances toward students. The incidents had occurred as much as 12 years earlier, when the two men were teaching in different school districts in California. As California officials moved to take away their licenses, the two landed jobs in Oregon by falsely stating on their application that they were not under investigation.

Officials in Oregon learned of the first case when a parent in the teacher's former district tracked his whereabouts, then tipped Oregon officials. They found out about the second teacher when a reporter at a California paper called to ask about his teaching status.

Too often, a bad teacher is quietly relieved of his or her job, only to show up in another unsuspecting school.

In William C. Bennett's case, Akron officials said they weren't aware that Bennett had been dismissed from the Virginia school for what school officials called "inappropriate conduct toward a student."

But after a short time in Akron, he was accused of fondling a 9-year-old boy. The incident was resolved by moving the boy to another elementary school.

More accusations came from students in 1994, 1996 and 1997, but were dismissed as untrue, although Bennett was moved to the high school.

Last September, a college student went to school officials and told them Bennett had molested him in high school, and the investigation began that led to his guilty plea.

Leaving quietly

Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft, in a 1994 national survey of 225 school superintendents, found that 221 teachers accused of sexual abuse quietly resigned or retired from their district.

Of those, superintendents were aware of 22 teachers who then were hired in other districts. While they didn't know the whereabouts of the rest, the superintendents conceded that many of those teachers could be employed in other schools "and that it would be easy for them to get other teaching jobs," Shakeshaft said.

And all but about 1 percent retained their teaching licenses, Shakeshaft said.

In a 1991 survey of 65 superintendents in North Carolina, a Winston-Salem University professor found 26 cases of sex-related offenses by teachers over the past three years. In 12 cases, the teacher was fired or forced to resign, according to the researcher, Dr. Dan Wishnictsky.

In the other cases, the teachers were simply reprimanded. Only one case was marked "charges not proven."

On average, teachers who molest children have worked in two to three school districts before they're stopped, according to Craig Emanuel, an investigator with the Arizona Department of Education. These are the teachers he calls "the mobile molesters."

The typical mobile molester case goes like this, he said:

A teacher who's a sex offender works in a school district "living a double life, until he gets out of control." School officials then learn about the abuse, and ask the teacher to leave quietly, dodging bad publicity and expensive legal proceedings.

The teacher then moves to another district where he molests more children, and then possibly to yet another district.

By that time, according to Emanuel's observations, the teacher's victims from the first district get older, wiser, and report the abuse to the police.

The molester may then be prosecuted, but by that time he could have harmed dozens of children.

In Pennsylvania, local school districts are encouraged -- but not required -- to report teachers who are forced to resign "for cause." But it doesn't happen often.

"If a teacher is arrested, convicted, sent to jail, and resigns from his job, and the district doesn't tell us, and it's not in the newspapers, we may never know about it," said education department spokeswoman Michele Haskins. In that case, the teacher's certification would remain intact, allowing them to continue working in classrooms.

Tide is turning

When a teacher who has resigned under pressure applies for a job in another school district, often his previous school district will not reveal the problems to the new employer. That's because previous employers -- not only in school districts but in any profession -- are skittish about providing unfavorable references and possibly being sued by the employee.

However, the legal tide is turning. Previously, said Thomas W. Pickrell, director of legal services for the Arizona School Boards Association, lawyers told clients not to reveal any information about former employees.

"Now, people are questioning that, and focusing on the social costs of this practice," he said. "The no-comment policy is turning into a more common-sense policy."

Adding fuel to the "common sense" approach undoubtedly is the fact that more and more abuse victims are suing the school districts that allowed the bad teachers to resign and move to another school.

One of the most notorious cases involves former band teacher George Crear III, who was featured this month on ABC's "20/20." In 1987, two of Crear's former students in Flint, Mich., went to the Michigan Board of Education and told officials that they had been molested by Crear many years previously.

But the statute of limitations had expired in their cases, and no criminal charges could be filed. The board simply allowed Crear to resign, and his personnel file was purged.

Crear then obtained a job as a band teacher at Palmetto High School in Florida, where officials knew nothing of his background. Soon, Crear was facing sexual abuse allegations from at least three girls. One of those students committed suicide.

In a verdict that surprised even his attorneys, Crear was acquitted in Florida. But almost immediately, another Michigan victim came forward with charges that Crear abused her. Crear now is serving life in prison in Michigan. And a former Florida student who said she was molested by Crear was awarded $720,000 last year in a civil suit against the school district.

In a California case, a student complained to officials in the Pasadena Unified School District in 1983 about inappropriate advances by track coach Clyde Ezra Turner. The information went into a secret memorandum that didn't surface again until this year, when Turner was sentenced for molesting a 15-year-old boy.

The teen-ager testified that Turner had invited him to his home, showed him a pornographic video, and then molested him.

At Turner's trial, three other students testified that Turner molested them more than 15 years ago.

Until the secret memo was uncovered by prosecutors, school officials denied they knew about any previous incidents involving Turner, who led the track team to five state championships.

Such teacher misconduct is far from common, acknowledged Bart Zabin, an investigator with the New York State Department of Education. "There are only a small number of bad apples in this wonderful orchard. But saving even one child from an abusive teacher is important," he said.

One way to prevent abuse, said Arizona's Emanuel, is to stop accepting quiet resignations from teachers "when you yourself would not rehire this person" and to constantly be on the lookout for signs of teacher misconduct.

A few states even have laws that sanction administrators if they knowingly write a favorable recommendation to get rid of a problem teacher.

Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia are not among those states.

"We have to recognize," Emanuel said, "in this profession there are people, child molesters, who will go to any lengths to be with children."

Copyright 1997-2004 PG Publishing. All rights reserved.

Dirty Secrets: Flawed system aids bad teachers
By Jane Elizabeth Zemel, Post-Gazette Education Writer
Post-Gazette, November 01, 1999

Second of a three-part series

Kathy Schilla couldn't understand why her daughter, a third-grader, didn't want to go to school anymore. After much coaxing, the child finally revealed what had happened to her at Lester Park Elementary School in Duluth, Minn.

Her teacher, Douglas J. Ranthum, had asked her to model her talent-show costume in the cloakroom during recess. He told her to remove her underwear because it showed through her costume, and then he repeatedly touched her breasts and buttocks.

Her horrified parents went immediately to the principal, who mentioned that two other parents had complained about the same thing several months earlier.

The principal's suggestion was that the Schillas should have a talk with the teacher.

That was in 1984. Eventually, Ranthum was sent to prison, and the principal was reprimanded for failing to report sexual abuse.

But Ranthum's teaching certificate was suspended, not revoked. After his prison term, he went on to get four more teaching jobs, simply leaving each one when his past caught up with him.

He landed his last teaching job in 1995 at AlBrook Elementary School near Duluth, just months before the state began requiring criminal background checks. He remained there until Kathy Schilla tracked him down and notified school authorities of his conviction.

By then, Ranthum was a tenured teacher. No evidence was found that Ranthum was still molesting children. Still, the school district paid him $35,000 to leave in 1997.

In June of this year, 15 years after he molested Schilla's daughter, Ranthum's Minnesota teaching license was finally revoked.

Fingerprinting could have stopped Ranthum from circulating. Checking and cataloging fingerprints of teacher applicants is considered a fairly simple and nearly foolproof way to keep bad teachers -- at least, those who have been charged or convicted -- out of the classroom.

"I am shocked at the number of states that don't require fingerprinting," said Thomas W. Pickrell, director of legal services for the Arizona School Boards Association. Currently, 27 states require fingerprinting for all teaching license applicants. In Pennsylvania, only applicants who have been state residents for less than a year must be fingerprinted before getting a teaching certificate, while Ohio requires fingerprinting for all teachers. In West Virginia, no fingerprinting is required for certification, but all county school districts require fingerprinting before a teacher is hired.

Fingerprinting has been required since 1994 in Arizona, and last year, a statewide fingerprint database was created.

In Colorado, where fingerprinting also is required, a "tickler file" was established this year. If anyone holding a teaching certificate is arrested for any crime, his or her name is reported by law enforcement officials to the education department.

In New York, some state senators for years have been trying without success to pass a fingerprinting law. This year, the bill again passed in the state Senate but, again, was not approved by the state Assembly. Teacher unions have been opposed to mandatory fingerprinting, saying it's an invasion of privacy.

According to New York state senate spokesman Mark Hansen, the proposed bill not only would have required fingerprinting, it would have established a standard procedure for schools to investigate allegations of abuse. Hansen expects the bill to be reintroduced in January.

However, a state task force on school violence recently agreed to add to its recommendations a mandate for fingerprinting and a requirement that school officials report any suspicions of abuse to state officials within 48 hours. Punishment for failure to do so would include fines or license review.

Bart Zabin, an investigator with the New York State Department of Education, is angered by the lack of support for the fingerprinting bill. He's also concerned that bad teachers will be more likely to apply for a job in his state.

"I'd be sure to pick a state that didn't have fingerprinting if I were a criminal," he said.

But no matter how advanced the technology or how progressive the legislation, there's always a way to beat the system. Sex offenders are especially creative in finding ways to cover their tracks and continue molesting.

Take Julio Wilson, for example. When he filled out his criminal record application, required of anyone who wants to become a teacher in Pennsylvania, Julio Wilson became Julia Wilson.

With a false name and fake social security number he got from the Internet, his background check came out clean. However, soon after he started working as a special education teacher in Carlisle Area School District, the dirt began to surface.

It started with an angry mother's call to the state Department of Education. Julio Wilson, she said, had molested her daughter when he was a teacher in a non-public school in Pennsylvania. He had pled guilty to aggravated assault, corruption of minors and giving alcohol to minors, among other charges.

How, she wanted to know, could he be allowed to work in Carlisle?

In Wilson's case, state officials said they might never have learned about Wilson's background had it not been for that call. They began revocation proceedings and took his teaching license in 1996.

Most states run background checks on teacher applicants, but they're not infallible, said Pittsburgh police Acting Commander Lt. Tom Atkins. Besides the problem of false social security numbers, he said, "human error can come into play -- if a name is typed incorrectly, for instance. If you are looking for someone named Duane, and you type in Dane, it won't come up."

"We can't rely on technology," said Michele Haskins, a Pennsylvania education department spokeswoman. "We have to rely on people."

Sixteen states, including Mississippi, not only don't require fingerprinting, they don't even require criminal background checks for teacher license applicants. Carolyn Alexander, who works in Mississippi's teacher certification office, said her office sometimes receives anonymous calls from people who ask if Mississippi does background checks on teacher applicants. She tells them there are no background checks, and they hang up.

She feels certain these callers then apply for a teaching job in Mississippi, and that experience has made her even more certain that background checks are needed in the state.

"We're deceiving ourselves if we don't think there are perverts," she said.

In Alabama, after three years of trying, education officials were able to persuade legislators to pass stricter laws on background checks for teacher candidates. Now, applicants at all schools must undergo a national fingerprint check. Before the law passed in July, the background check was just a policy, not a law, and did not apply to private or parochial schools, according to Alabama education department spokesman Tony Harris.

Fingerprinting and background checks sometimes don't tell the whole story, however. Shayla Lever, director of child abuse prevention for the Los Angeles Unified School District, said fingerprinting might lead to a false sense of security.

"The majority [of abusers] would not have anything on file," Lever said. "Fingerprints don't indicate propensity. Pedophiles have a history of being in situations where the child doesn't expose them."

A slowly increasing number of states, like Alabama, are passing laws designed to keep bad teachers out of the classroom. In Wisconsin, for instance, legislators approved a law that's standard procedure in most states -- a law that allows school district officials to fire or refuse to hire anyone who's been convicted of a felony.

And in Minnesota, Kathy Schilla -- the parent whose daughter was molested -- was instrumental in getting a law passed in May that prohibits any person convicted of a felony sex offense from obtaining a teaching certificate.

"I had to do this for her," Schilla said in a recent phone interview. "He took away her innocence and self-esteem. What he did was horrendous." Her daughter's life has been troubled since the abuse, and Schilla won't talk about her.

While new legislation is encouraging, Douglas F. Bates, a Utah education licensing official who's considered one of the nation's leading experts in teacher misconduct issues, isn't impressed yet. "It's less than it should be in every state," he said.

Here are other ways bad teachers beat the system:

Lazy reference-checking. Arizona's regulations -- some of the most stringent in the country -- mandate that school officials contact an applicant's previous employer for references. That may sound like standard procedure for any new hire, but school districts struggling with teacher shortages sometimes do only a cursory reference check, or don't bother with it at all.

And the problem may only get worse. About 2.2 million teachers will be needed nationally over the next decade, according to federal education officials. States that are short on teachers may be lax , or late, in conducting background checks, investigators worry.

Ignoring the signs. Also in Arizona, any teacher who even suspects "immoral behavior" on the part of another educator must report it to an administrator, noted Craig Emanuel, an investigator with the Arizona Department of Education. If teachers don't report the suspicion, they can be charged with a Class I misdemeanor and could lose their own teaching certificate.

Lever said school officials need to pay closer attention to teachers to make sure problem behavior isn't going undetected or, worse yet, tolerated. In the Los Angeles district, she said, "We're very much aware of abuse perpetrated by staff," she said. "The reality is that molesters and abusers go where there are children, and the children are in the schools."

Lack of procedure. Whose job is it to handle teacher abuse allegations? Sometimes, victims don't know where to go for help.

The Los Angeles Unified School District, where the school population outnumbers the population of many cities, has its own department to handle cases in which teachers abuse students. Lever, director of the department, says she knows of no other school system in the country that has such an office.

In Pennsylvania, students or parents who are uncomfortable about making a complaint to the school principal can go directly to the state Department of Education. A complaint form can be found on the department's website -- http://www.bbpages.psu.edu/bbpages_reference/40001/400015656.html

No national data base. All state education departments are members of the NASDTEC Clearinghouse, an Internet "bulletin board" managed by the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. It lists educators who have had some adverse action taken against them.

But Bates, who serves as general counsel of NASDTEC, is the first to acknowledge that the list is only as good as the reporting from the states. "They're not only not reporting, they're not checking it," said Bates. "Unfortunately, there's the attitude that 'it won't happen here.' "

Also, NASDTEC's executive director, Roy Einreinhofer, believes his list includes few teachers who were disciplined before 1984, when the clearinghouse was created.

"We asked the states to go back and record as much historical data as they could," he said. "Some of them did, and some of them didn't."

The list is available only to selected state officials -- not to the general public.

Lack of cooperation among states. Only a few states -- not including Pennsylvania, Ohio or West Virginia -- have revocation "reciprocity" with neighboring states. In other words, if one state revokes a teacher's license, another state can automatically revoke the license without a hearing and also may deny an application from that teacher. Without reciprocity, state officials must conduct their own, time-consuming investigation before taking the teacher's license.

Too many deals. School officials sometimes agree to expunge records and make deals so that bad teachers will leave quietly, experts say. But in a few states, that's prohibited by law. Those laws also require that if a teacher resigns to avoid discipline, it must be reported to the state's department of education, which keeps the case on file but does not release the information. Even if the school district does keep such records, it's up to school officials whether to reveal that information.

Lack of cooperation among in-state agencies. Pennsylvania education officials asked state police to compare its criminal records to the list of certified teachers in the state. But the idea was dropped when state police said they'd charge the state education department for each name, which would have run into millions of dollars, according to Pat Fullerton, assistant chief counsel for the education department.

So state education officials rely on less efficient methods such as checking newspaper clippings to find out if a teacher has been convicted of a felony. And education department staffers attend parole board hearings and other court proceedings in case a defendant happens to be a teacher.

By contrast, Kansas law requires county district attorneys to forward every felony conviction to state education officials so they can check the names against their teacher certification list.

Lack of monitoring by the federal government. The U.S. Department of Education doesn't monitor the number of teachers accused or convicted of abusing students, or teachers who have lost their teaching certificates for any reason.

"Education is regulated by the states, not the federal government," said Dr. Nan Stein, a Wellesley College researcher.

Restrictive laws. In many states, teachers can be reprimanded only for actions that occur at school. For instance, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., two teachers were arrested and charged in January during a raid on a sex orgy club in Pompano Beach. But they've been allowed to keep working in the school district -- although away from the classroom -- because the offense occurred off school grounds.

Kenneth Springer and Tonya Whyte were arrested in January. When school board first considered the case in early August, they voted, 8-1, to suspend them without pay. But after a public backlash over the decision, the board reconsidered and voted to keep them on salary. They're currently awaiting an administrative judge's decision on the district's accusation of immorality.

Statute of limitations. In cases of sexual abuse by teachers around the country, the state's statute of limitations often has kept charges from being filed when victims come forward years after the abuse. But some states have dropped all time limits on filing charges.

Secrecy. Students who are victims of abuse, especially boys, often don't tell anyone, research shows. Only about 7 percent of students sexually harassed by a teacher will report it to anyone, according to studies conducted by Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft.

Denial. Teachers don't want to acknowledge that one of their own colleagues could be a child molester, experts say, and may vocally support a teacher accused of misconduct while publicly dismissing the alleged victim.

Parents don't want to believe that the most popular teacher in school is fondling his students. And administrators don't want parents to find out that a bad teacher is on the payroll. Educators tend to "protect the group, circle the wagons," said Dr. Dan Wishnictsky, a researcher at Winston-Salem (N.C.) University. "This is why the information is not being made public, even within education circles."

Mary Jo McGrath, a Santa Barbara, Calif., attorney who specializes in school law, noted that teachers "have a difficult time reconciling the person they know with the heinous behavior they are hearing about.

"It is often easier, and certainly more comfortable, to assume that the student is lying."

Post-Gazette staff writer Steve Twedt contributed to this report.

Dirty Secrets: State education officials want legislators' help to end sexual abuse
By Jane Elizabeth Zemel, Post-Gazette Education Writer
Post-Gazette, November 02, 1999

Third of a three-part series

In Pennsylvania, a group of 13 average citizens meets six times a year in Harrisburg to talk about teachers in trouble.

The cases that come before the Pennsylvania Standards and Practices Commission range from incompetence and forgery to incest and rape. Their decisions can -- and often do -- mark the end of a teacher's career.

So far this year, 24 discipline cases were decided by the commission. Of those, at least 15 were for sex-related offenses. Sex-related cases heard by the commission cover a wide range of offenses.

David Hardy, a Penn State graduate who became a school psychologist and elementary counselor in the Harrisburg area, pled guilty to child sexual abuse and designing and selling pornographic materials. The commission revoked his license in 1997.

Clyde Caliguiri, a music teacher in the South Park School District, was found guilty of sexually abusing his daughter. His certificate was revoked in 1992, a year after the state education department was notified of his guilty plea.

Frank C. Ceraso, who attended Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh, lost his elementary education teaching license in 1996 after he exposed himself to a female lifeguard and assaulted her.

Terri S. Hatton, a guidance counselor in Wilson Area School District, Northampton County, surrendered her certificates to the commission after they accused her of having sex with a student. When the student wanted to stop having sex with her, she threatened to tell the student's parents about the relationship, according to documents from the commission, which accepted her surrender in 1996.

From teachers making bomb threats to principals molesting students, the commission has heard it all. Formed in 1989, the commission receives cases from the state Department of Education, which takes complaints from parents, school officials, and other sources.

Many of those complaints are settled before they ever get to the commission, which considers only the more serious or contentious cases that require disciplinary action.

Yet, the commission's caseload of teacher misconduct has increased each year since its inception, reaching a peak of 172 cases in 1997.

But even though Pennsylvania officials chase down bad teachers much more aggressively than they did a decade ago, other states have regulations that give parents even greater assurance that their children's teachers aren't criminals.

What do they have that Pennsylvania doesn't?

Primarily, fingerprinting.

In Pennsylvania, only teacher applicants who have lived in the state for less than a year, along with all out-of-state applicants, must be fingerprinted before certification.

In addition, while a few states have abolished any statute of limitations on reporting teacher abuse, Pennsylvania has just a one-year time limit for victims and school districts.

However, that may change, under proposed regulations that the department is hoping to push through the legislature.

Here are the highlights:

Statute of limitations. Victims of educator abuse may report the incident up to seven years after the student turns 18.

Charter schools. The commission would have authority over teachers in charter schools. Under state law, up to 25 percent of charter school teachers can be non-certified; but under the proposal, the state could also discipline those teachers.

In addition, the proposal would keep a teacher who lost his certification in a regular public school from becoming a teacher in a charter school.

School officials' responsibilities. Superintendents would have to report any reasonable suspicions that a teacher has abused a child. Now, the law states that superintendents need to report such a case only if the teacher has been charged with a crime, convicted or dismissed for cause.

Also, the proposal would extend reporting responsibilities to assistant superintendents, and executive directors and directors of vo-tech schools.

Reciprocity. Currently, when a teacher holding a Pennsylvania certificate is disciplined in another state, the commission must hold a full-scale hearing to prove that the case against the teacher warrants discipline in Pennsylvania also. Under the proposal, the burden is on the teacher, who would have to prove to the commission why the certificate should not be revoked.

Reinstatement. Teachers whose licenses are revoked could not apply for reinstatement for five years, under the proposal. This would include out-of-state teachers. Currently, teachers can try for reinstatement immediately -- even the very day the license is revoked.
See Dirty Secrets chart: Pennsylvania teacher discipline cases, 1990-1999

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