Report: Predatory teachers a threat

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Editor's Note: The comptroller's report is available here.

A comptroller's report found weaknesses in the way state and school district officials protect students from educators who commit sexual misconduct.

The Tennessee Comptroller's Office of Research and Education Accountability (OREA) released the report Wednesday and presented the data to the Senate Education Committee.

The report looks at Tennessee's hiring practices, record keeping and actions taken against teachers. The federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) requires states or districts to prevent a teacher who committed sexual misconduct against a student from finding employment in another district.

Still at work

Tennessee has not met the ESSA's requirement from keeping teachers involved in misconduct from finding jobs in other school districts, the report says.

Bedford County Superintendent Don Embry was reviewing the comptroller's report at press time and did not immediately have a comment.

JC Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, responded to the report by saying, "We should not be shocked when sex offenders seek employment in jobs where they have contact with children such as churches, schools, youth groups, hospitals, and social services. We have to do a better job of screening applicants in those fields.

"We have seen many false claims made by and against a teacher, and once an accusation is made it is nearly impossible to restore a teacher's reputation. It is a difficult balancing act. There will never be a perfect system. However, we support keeping those who committed sexual misconduct out of our classrooms."

Tennessee earns an F

However, the comptroller's report says it is not easy to keep such educators out of districts.

The comptroller's report cites a 2016 USA Today investigation that studied each state's efforts to prevent educators with a history of sexual misconduct from finding jobs in other schools. Tennessee earned an F in that study.

School districts have the main responsibility to ensure school personnel are cleared to work there, the comptroller report says. Some states make this a state responsibility, but the Tennessee Board of Education has challenges in doing this, the comptroller says.

In Tennessee, a district runs a background check when a person is offered a job, the report says. In states that received a higher grade by USA Today, background checks are run at the state level when a person seeks a license to teach.

Not enough resources

"Inconsistencies at the State Board of Education in organizing and maintaining records concerning teacher misconduct could negatively affect the accuracy of data in the database that tracks the status of teacher licenses," the comptroller's office said in a press release.

The State School Board is working to upgrade its record keeping but may lack the staff and resources to do so effectively, the press release said.

In Tennessee, data is spread across multiple agencies and jurisdictions.

The Department of Children's Services, local law enforcement and the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation have data about specific cases. The State Board of Education and the Office of Educator Licensure in the Tennessee Department of Education have the data on Tennessee educator licenses and the actions against them.

Widespread abuse

It is difficult to determine the number of children who are sexually abused by school personnel nationally or in any given state. The best available and most widely cited national estimate was made by a researcher in a 2004 U.S. Department of Education report based on survey data from 2000: nearly 9.6 percent of students indicated that they had been victims of sexual abuse by school employees at some point during their school years. The researcher further deduced that, assuming the surveys accurately describe the experiences of all K-12 students, "more than 4.5 million students are subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade."

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