States try to stymie hiring teachers in sex abuse cases
Hartford, Conn. — It’s called “passing the trash”: A school suspects a teacher of sexual misconduct and forces the teacher out to protect the students. But that teacher can still get a new job in a new school, sometimes with a glowing recommendation.
Only Pennsylvania, Missouri and Oregon ban the maneuver, but a federal mandate passed in December now requires states to address its potential risks. Connecticut is considering such legislation.
One woman abused by such a teacher says it’s about time the problem is getting attention.
She was 16 when her English teacher at the exclusive Marlborough School in Los Angeles began grooming her. He showered her with praise, gave her gifts and pitted her against her friends. Then there was a sexual advance, and sex. Eventually, she became pregnant and miscarried.
She reported him only years later, after she learned he had targeted another girl more recently. A lawsuit she filed says he was accused of misconduct at two schools before Marlborough hired him. When he was finally pushed out of Marlborough, the school gave him a recommendation, the suit asserts.
The woman, now 31, says it is infuriating that the man who abused her, Joseph Koetters, was able to “hit the reset button” and start fresh at a new school. Koetters pleaded guilty to sexually molesting her and another girl and was sentenced in October to a year behind bars.
“It’s clear that not just in Marlborough but in all these cases nationwide, the schools lack the will or the moral compass to take these measures on their own,” the woman said.
A judge last month denied the school’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. The school did not comment, citing the pending litigation.
The Associated Press does not identify victims of sexual abuse without their consent.
The woman’s lawyer, David Ring, says it’s a problem at public schools and private schools alike. He won a $5.6 million jury verdict in 2013 in the case of a public school teacher in California who sexually abused a 14-year-old girl. Even though the school knew the teacher had sent her romantic emails midyear, he was allowed to finish the year and left the school with a letter of recommendation.
More recently in Rhode Island, teachers now accused in a sex abuse scandal at the exclusive boarding school St. George’s School were pushed out but went on to new jobs in schools around the country.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2010 studied 15 cases of K-12 schools that hired or retained people with histories of sexual misconduct. Eleven involved people who previously targeted children. In at least six cases, the GAO found offenders used their new positions to abuse more children.
One official told the GAO it could cost up to $100,000 to fire a teacher, even with a “slam-dunk case.” Others said administrators fear lawsuits if they don’t provide a positive reference.
The new federal mandate requires states to create policies that make it illegal for schools to help an employee get a new job if they suspect them of abusing children, according to the office of Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, who pushed for the federal legislation.
Many states are just now learning of the mandate, Toomey’s office said.
Child safety advocate Terri Miller supports such bans. Her group SESAME — for Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation — says the practice is deliberate child endangerment.
“You’re passing a known child sexual predator onto another unsuspecting classroom full of children,” she said.
The Connecticut proposal says that before schools hire a teacher, they would have to contact past employers and ask if the applicant was ever investigated for abuse or sexual misconduct, or disciplined or asked to resign amid such allegations. Schools would be required to disclose such information, unless the allegations were found to be false.
Some oppose the measure. Jan Hochadel, president of the teachers union AFT Connecticut, said the union understands the bill’s intent, but it overreaches.
“There also appears to be an assumption that school employees are guilty, rather than innocent before proven guilty,” she said.
The Connecticut Association of Boards of Education said it worries the bill, if approved, would make it difficult for schools to make timely job offers.
The victim from the Marlborough School said she’s hoping California will soon ban passing the trash.
“It’s a moment where we can hopefully move the conversation forward and see some positive change,” she said.