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Laws Changing to Protect Schoolchildren


As children return to the nation's schools, they are safer from the rare teacher who would harm them, thanks to a steady reinforcing of laws coast to coast overseeing those in the classroom.

More states, districts and schools each year do background screening of school employees.

Customs are changing too--including that of administrators moving unfit teachers along quietly, even secretly, said Douglas Bates of Utah's Office of Education. Today, there's an evolving legal "duty to warn." Indeed, disciplinary actions and lawsuits over alleged "indifference" to pupils' needs can be found from Florida to California.

In one case, Florida's Education Practices Commission revoked the license of teacher Norman Bailey, accused of pressuring students for sex. Then the agency went after his principal, Raymond Rainone, saying he "failed to make reasonable effort to protect" students.

Rainone has just completed two years' probation, a punishment he considers unjustified. It was he, Rainone said, who turned Bailey in after another district hid the teacher's misdeeds with a secrecy agreement.

In Michigan, the Legislature banned such secrecy agreements.

"It seems to me comical that we have to put in a state law requiring school administrators to report what they have a moral obligation to report," said Flint prosecutor Arthur Busch.

In Kansas, a student's $8-million lawsuit accuses administrators of "negligent failure to warn" about a teacher's history of abuse. Ann Turnbow, the mother of an Arkansas student suing administrators for alleged "indifference" to a teacher-coach's seduction, said: "If they had been doing their job, this man wouldn't have been able to do the things he did."

Meanwhile, efforts continue to close legal loopholes.

California enacted a 1994 law permanently revoking credentials of teachers convicted of felony sex offenses or distributing drugs to minors. Previously, such teachers could have credentials restored a year after suspension. Four had returned to the classroom this way in the preceding four years.

In New York, Donna Covello says she's fighting to close loopholes. The president of SESAME, or Survivors of Educator Sexual Abuse and Misconduct Emerge, she pressed legislators for passage of several measures, including a "Position of Trust" bill. That bill would have made it a felony punishable by up to 15 years' imprisonment for educators and others to sexually abuse children in their care. She blamed a teachers' union for blocking the legislation.

Linda Rosenblatt, spokeswoman for the 375,000-member New York State United Teachers, said: "We have no stake in keeping people in the classroom who don't belong there. We do have a stake in seeing that people's due process rights are protected." The position-of-trust bill didn't clearly define who holds such a position, she said.

Similarly, measures to require background checks have had problems--for example, a proposed check of prospective teachers' names against a state child abuse registry. The problem: Baseless allegations, sometimes made during divorces, can reach the registry.

SESAME's Covello has different priorities.

When she was 14, a school counselor began a two-year period of molesting her, she said. Not until two decades later, after she attempted suicide and overcame anorexia, did she finally file a complaint.

That act of will three years ago led to another: directly confronting the counselor, by then a school dean. "I wore a body wire. My fear was he wasn't going to talk," she said. "But he did."

He was forced to resign.

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