August 29, 2014

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State delayed on teacher discipline


Lawmakers stalled on reforms to stop teacher misconduct

COLUMBUS — State lawmakers are demanding changes to rid classrooms of teachers with histories of sexual misbehavior, but for years the Legislature failed to repair educators’ discipline system, a newspaper reported Sunday.

The Ohio Department of Education repeatedly asked for laws that would require criminal background checks and force districts to report misconduct to the agency.

Lawmakers also denied victims of decades-old child sex abuse the chance to file civil lawsuits against their abusers.

One consequence is that offenders at private schools have been able to keep their violations hidden because those records are not public. The legislation could have helped identify teachers who preyed on students.

Lawmakers recently watered down a law that would have required children-services agencies to report all cases of abuse and neglect by licensed educators to the state’s Department of Education. The law now requires reporting only when the abuse “directly relates to a licensee’s duties and responsibilities.”

Speaker Jon Husted called the House Education Committee hearings that were held last week to investigate flaws in the teacher-discipline system.

“It was my understanding that the laws on the books were sufficient to handle this. If they’re not now, we’ll make sure they are,” said Husted, a suburban Dayton Republican.

The Ohio Department of Education is the only agency that can suspend or revoke an educator’s license.

The Legislature has given in to pressure from teachers unions and lobbying by school administrators, said Mark Haverkos, a parent from West Chester Township in Butler County. He testified before a House committee last week.

“They’ve got to move parents up on the priority list,” Haverkos said. “The system is gamed against us.”

Lawmakers demanded reform after The Columbus Dispatch ran a series of stories that found that educators with histories of fondling students, exposing themselves in public and hiring prostitutes were allowed to keep teaching.

A separate investigation published later by The Associated Press found more than 2,500 sexual misconduct cases nationwide over five years in which educators were punished for actions from bizarre to sadistic. That number represents a small fraction of the 3 million public school teachers nationwide, but still adds up to three cases for every school day.

Until now, education-related laws involving standardized tests, charter schools and vouchers took priority. There hasn’t been an equal sense of urgency to address educator misconduct.

State education officials asked for the background-check legislation in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2004. Each time, House and Senate leaders took no action.

In 2005, then-Rep. Tom Raga, a Republican from Mason, took up the cause after the media reported on a Warren County teacher who was allowed to quietly resign to cover up an affair with a student.

After an initial burst of momentum, the bill stalled and then languished for a year.

When it seemed certain that Democrat Ted Strickland would win the governor’s office in November, House leaders decided to revive the bill. They wanted to use it for several education-related proposals they planned to pass after the election.

When the bill finally passed in December, its toughest provisions had been softened. There were no consequences for superintendents who failed to report misconduct cases to the state. Children-services agencies had to report educators only when they harmed students.