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Regional school officials: We're short of resources needed to investigate complaints about bad teachers

By Scott Reeder, sreeder@qconline.com
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Gary Steinert, Whiteside County Regional Schools Superintendent.
Hidden Violations website

SPRINGFIELD -- William Novotney isn't a lawyer, detective or a judge.

But like 55 other regional superintendents of schools in Illinois he was expected to be each of those things at times.

Illinois doesn't have any investigators to follow up on misconduct complaints against teachers, but when the State Board of Education does receive a complaint, it refers the matter to a relatively obscure local elected post -- the regional superintendent of schools.

"We are strapped for resources and really don't have the knowledge or the staff to adequately investigate these things," said Matt Donkin, regional superintendent of schools, for Franklin and Williamson counties. "It would great if the state would provide us with an experienced investigator to look into these matters."

State law gives regional superintendents the authority to suspend a teacher's license for up to a year. Not only are these regional offices of education charged with conducting hearings and meting out punishments, but they also are called on to investigate allegations against teachers.

"We really don't have much power as investigators," said Whiteside County Regional Superintendent Gary Steinert. "We don't have the power to subpoena so we can't make anyone testify. I couldn't even get a local court to turn over a local administrator's criminal file several years ago."

Generally regional superintendents are former teachers or school administrators who have had little to no training in conducting investigations.

Placing teachers in charge of investigating other teachers creates a tendency for investigators to look after their own, said Charol Shakeshaft, chair of Virginia Commonwealth University's education department.

Educators tend to more sympathetic to the adult facing the allegations than to the children making the complaint, said Shakeshaft, a nationally known expert on sexual abuse in schools.

In fact, Novotney, who retired recently as LaSalle County regional superintendent of schools, said he assumes an adult is more likely to be telling the truth than a child.

"You get this situation where the child said this, and the teacher said that, and it's just not black and white, it's kind of a gray situation," Novotney said. "Those are the kind of cases where it is difficult to make a decision. You're making a decision on a persons' livelihood that they spent a considerable sum of money trying to get."

In the case of Derek Babcock, a Seneca, Ill., teacher accused by a former student of having sexually abused her over a two-year period, Novotney said he wanted to hold a hearing on whether to suspend Babcock's teaching certificate but Babcock moved out of state and couldn't be located.

"I didn't think I could have a hearing without him present. So I just called the state board of education and informed them about the allegation," Novotney said.

But when Florida officials contacted the Illinois State board of Education on March 17, 2005, they were told they had no information on Babcock.

Babcock taught for two years in Florida before school district officials there learned of the Illinois allegations. When contacted by Small Newspaper Group, Babcock declined to respond.

Using the Illinois Freedom of Information Act, Small Newspaper Group obtained copies of all suspension orders issued during the last decade from all 56 regional superintendents of schools.

* Of those 56 regional offices of education only 24 have taken any action in the last decade.

* Of the 24 regional offices of education offices that have taken any disciplinary action about eight took discretionary action for a non-criminal offense such as immorality or unprofessional conduct.

"It's not hard to figure out why this is," Superintendent Donkin said. "We don't feel comfortable investigating these matters. We aren't comfortable with all of the formalities associated with it and everyone is scared to death of being sued. So we just wait until the teacher has been convicted of a crime before we do anything."

But Kansas State University Education Law Professor Robert Shoop said this is flawed reasoning.

"Just because they weren't convicted doesn't mean they are innocent. It's like O.J. Simpson. He was never proven innocent, he was just found not guilty. In a lot of these cases the kids don't want to come forward to testify. And what parent wants their kid on the front page saying I had oral sex with a 50 year old guy in the band room? Another thing is that these people are smart. They don't typically do things in front of witnesses," Professor Shoop said.

For all of these reasons it is quite appropriate for education officials to seek to revoke a license, even if there is there is not a criminal conviction, he said. In fact in many states it is common for teachers to lose their teaching licenses for offenses that are non-criminal such as immorality, unprofessional conduct or an inappropriate relationship with a student. These type revocations rarely happen in Illinois.

In fact, even convictions for serious crimes often are not acted upon by regional superintendents or the state board of education.

* For example, in 2000, Christopher, Ill., teacher David Flowers was charged with multiple felony counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse amid allegations that he groped female students. In a plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to 16 counts of misdemeanor battery, each involving a different child. No action was taken against his teaching certificate by either the regional superintendent or the state certification board.

* In 2004, Robinson (Illinois) High School teacher Jennifer Brummett pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal sexual abuse after becoming sexually involved with a student. Neither the state nor the regional superintendent sought to revoke her teaching certificate until a reporter inquired about the matter.

Not only are most regional superintendents reticent to pursue these cases, state law provides then with little guidance. For example, in disciplinary hearings, there is not a prescribed procedure for conducting the hearing, a defined burden of proof or any rules on what type of evidence can be considered.

Whiteside County Regional Superintendent Gary Steinert said it is quite intimidating as a non-lawyer to preside over a hearing being argued by two lawyers.

"There are no rules, so my attitude is to just let in as much evidence as possible," he said.