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Keeping Tighter Tabs on Bad-Actor Teachers

February 26, 2008 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Although Minnesota school districts are required to conduct rigorous background checks on applicants for teaching jobs, sometimes a sexually abusive person or a child pornographer is inadvertently hired.

State Rep. Karla Bigham of Cottage Grove says more information in teachers' license records might save school districts from disastrous hires. She has proposed requiring the name of any teacher whose license has been suspended to be marked with an asterisk on the state's online teacher roster.

The House E-12 Education Committee will hear the bill Thursday at 8 a.m. in the State Office Building.

Licenses issued by the Board of Teaching, which are required to teach in Minnesota, can be suspended for reasons including forgery, drunken driving or failure to fulfill a contract. Sexual abuse or child pornography leads to permanent license revocation, but a suspended license can be reinstated if conditions imposed by the board are met.

Each week, the board sends districts a list of newly suspended licenses. This is the only way districts can know if a license has been suspended.

Ron Nielsen, executive director of human resources for the Moorhead School District, said flagging teachers with past suspensions is a good idea, even though his district already checks each candidate's license. "I don't know if other districts do, though," he said.  "An overworked, understaffed district might let a problem candidate slip through."

The state requires a criminal background check before hiring any teacher, but the Board of Teaching and the criminal justice system don't work in tandem. Board actions are not reported to law enforcement, and criminal charges against teachers aren't reported to the board.

This means a teacher could have been disciplined by the board, but if no criminal charge were filed another district could be unaware of the problem. Bigham's bill suggests that flagging a teacher whose license has been suspended might keep school districts from hiring the teacher. Sen. Kathy Saltzman of Woodbury has introduced a companion bill in the Senate.

Karen Balmer, the Board of Teaching's executive director, said it would be easy to change the roster of licensed teachers to flag those who have been suspended.

But she wonders which problems should be flagged. Some reasons for suspension are more serious than others. "If a teacher leaves before the end of the school year, her license would be suspended for failure to fulfill the contract, no matter what her reason for leaving is," she said. "Should she be flagged for that?"

Tim Sworsky, human resources manager of certified staff in the Duluth School District, said the district asks applicants if their license has ever been suspended, but it's hard to know if they respond truthfully. An asterisk on the board's web site "would help us initiate a conversation about the issue," he said.

Flagging a teacher's license because of a previous suspension is legal as long as a notice of reinstatement is included, said Andrew Voss, a lawyer and labor employment specialist for the Littler and Mendelson law firm in Minneapolis.

DeAnne LeValle, employee services director for the Anoka-Hennepin School District, said Bigham's bill is a good idea. However, since many districts are already checking for suspended licenses among applicants, she wondered what it would change.

Even if the proposal keeps one harmful teacher out of the classroom, it would be worthwhile, Nielsen said. "The background checks aren't foolproof," he said, but they are effective. "We catch 99.9 percent (of problem candidates)."

Licensed teachers with sketchy backgrounds are rare, but they do show up. In his eight years in Moorhead, Nielsen said, about 20 district applicants have been rejected because of information on background checks.

But background checks and Bigham's proposal won't flag a teacher who has no previous criminal or disciplinary record. "Several years ago we had a teacher who was dealing in child pornography," Nielsen said. "He had no previous record. There's no way we could have known not to hire him."

Education is an investment in Minnesota's future.  Our kids deserve safe, high-quality schools.

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