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School Safety Net Fails to Bar Molesters

Education: Background checks, fingerprinting and Internet site keep some offenders out of teaching. But others slip through despite criminal convictions, even if their bosses are aware of them, an Associated Press survey finds.


SOCIAL CIRCLE, Ga. — Bill Walsh taught in Gilmer County, Ga., until he was accused of molesting boys.

But there was no indictment, so Walsh moved on to Oconee County, where he worked as a substitute teacher. There, three boys accused him of touching them on the buttocks and crotch.

But no one could prove it, and nobody reported it to the state, and Walsh moved on to Social Circle Elementary School. It was his third school in two years, and it was the place his teaching career ended.

This summer, Walsh was sentenced to 40 years in prison, convicted of sexually fondling his students at Social Circle.

"You'll never again be entrusted with our youth," Judge Marvin Sorrells told him as victims' parents glared at the handcuffed teacher.

But why had it taken so long for justice to prevail? Why had children in three different Georgia schools been subjected to Walsh before he was stopped?

And is this sort of thing happening at schools nationwide?

The fact is, the safety net that protects American schoolchildren has been strengthened, with tougher teacher background screening, fingerprinting mandates and a new Internet-based network to catch decertified teachers who are trying to move from state to state.

But bad apples continue to show up at teachers' desks. Why?

Holes remain in the safety net, Associated Press found in an examination of teacher screening, hiring and discipline practices across the nation.

Criminal convictions don't necessarily bar teachers from the classroom, even for assault, drug dealing and, in rare cases, sexual misconduct with students.

A Minnesota middle school teacher, John S. Kinzler, was accused by several teenage students of improperly touching them. "It was not like a 'good job' pat," one girl told police.

A student aide to Florida high school teacher James R. Stein made a similar complaint, saying that he had touched and kissed her despite her protests.

Prosecutors brought criminal charges. Kinzler pleaded guilty to three counts of misdemeanor criminal sexual conduct. Stein pleaded no contest to a battery charge. Both were fined, ordered to get counseling and placed on probation.

Then both returned to the classroom.

Kinzler had tenure, his superintendent said. A misdemeanor is not just cause to break a contract, even misdemeanor sexual conduct with a student. State education officials agreed, and Minnesota's system is not unique. Kinzler declined to comment.

In an interview, Stein said he had "worked long and hard" to comply with all school and court requirements. "I did everything they asked me to do," he said.

Kids are at risk for other reasons. About a dozen states do not mandate criminal background investigations for new teachers statewide. In 15 states, fingerprint checks are not required, even though this is considered the most effective screening. Some districts in these states do their own screening.

In some places, complained National School Safety Center Director Ronald Stephens, "there are more requirements to screen someone who's brushing down horses at the racetracks than someone who's working with our children in the schools."

Even in states with tough background checks, an uncertain number of convicts teach. A blanket disqualification of anyone with a criminal record is considered unfair; some convicted teachers keep their jobs conditionally after disciplinary hearings. But in other cases, oversight officials are unaware.

Associated Press computer matches turned up Texas teachers with rap sheets from six of 11 states checked. Like several states, Texas routinely checks only for criminal activity committed within its borders.

Arguments against criminal background screening can be summed up this way: cost, cumbersomeness and the Constitution.

"Freedom-loving people should be concerned about how much liberty they're willing to relinquish for the good of the community," said Scott Crichton of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, where a teacher background check bill was rejected this year.

Targeting teachers is simply unfair, others say.

"It was insulting . . . to ask a teacher who'd been teaching 25 or 30 years, who'd been a pillar of her community, to go down and get fingerprinted," said Corrie Haanschoten of the Alabama Education Assn. The union successfully lobbied to exempt current teachers from a new fingerprinting requirement; it covers new school employees.

But Rick Wilson of Washington state's teacher-screening agency defended tough mandates there, which he said stop felon-applicants every week: "If you're preventing some very bad people from going in . . . how much is it worth even if you save one or two or three children?"

Kids are at risk because investigative staffs have not been beefed up to keep pace with the widening safety net.

As his annual caseload doubled to about 800 investigations, James Carter, who heads Georgia's teacher investigative agency, said only one employee had been added, bringing his staff to eight.

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