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Moving bad teachers: Officials call it `passing the trash'

By Scott Reeder, sreeder@qconline.com
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Miranda Brockman of Verona contends her former Seneca Grade School teacher sexually abused her between the ages of 12 and 14.
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Miranda Brockman celebrates her twelfth birthday in her parents' Seneca home in 1989. She attended Seneca Grade School where she contends a former teacher sexually abused her from the ages of 12 and 14.
Hidden Violations website

SPRINGFIELD -- Shortly after turning 19, Miranda Brockman walked into the Grundy County Sheriff's office and said she had been sexually abused by her grade school teacher, Derek Babcock.

The alleged abuse, she told deputies in 1996, happened from the time she was 12 until she turned 14.

"I believed what she told me. But there wasn't much we could do. The statute of limitations had just run out and the case couldn't be prosecuted," said Kevin Callahan, chief deputy for the sheriff's office.

Ms. Brockman also told her story to officials at Seneca Grade School District.

"He told me he would probably die if I didn't do stuff for his own sexual gratification. He told me that I couldn't tell anybody because he would lose his job. And it would be my fault if he lost his job, because they didn't want anybody who was sick," Ms. Brockman said.

During that two-year period, she contends that she masturbated Babcock between 50 and 70 times, usually in his home where she says she was often brought in to baby-sit.

Previously, Babcock has denied these allegations. When contacted recently by Small Newspaper Group for comment he did not respond.

After Brockman made the accusation to Seneca school officials in 1996, Babcock resigned.

In exchange for his resignation, school officials signed a contract promising that they would never tell potential employers of the allegation made against him and give him at least a neutral job referral.

Even the exact wording of the job referral was included in the contract:

"Derek Babcock was employed by the Board of Education of Seneca Community School District #170, LaSalle County, Illinois, from August 1984 until November 1996 when he resigned for personal reasons. Mr. Babcock performed his teaching duties throughout this period which consisted of teaching third grade, elementary physical education and coaching various sports. His final annual salary was $43,416. The board does not release further information."

Since he remained licensed to teach, wasn't fired and received a job referral, Babcock was able to get another teaching job.

Seneca Grade School District hardly is unique in how it handled the case. In fact, the practice has become so common that school officials across the nation have given it nicknames like: "Passing the Trash," "The Dance of the Lemons," and "Passing the Turkey."

"School superintendents are like water -- they'll always take the easiest route," said former Illinois State School Superintendent Ted Sanders. "They want to avoid the cost of litigation. In a perfect world, these cases would be reported to the teacher certification board and the teacher would never set foot in a classroom again. But a superintendent's main concern is getting rid of their problem -- even if it leaves children in another school district or another state vulnerable."

But teacher unions defend the practice, saying that often these cases are ambiguous with different accounts of what happened.

"A future employer would know that a settlement was reached by a job applicant's former employer and if that employer was not making positive statements about the employee it would become apparent that something didn't work out right," said David Comerford, a spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

But that didn't keep a Florida school district from hiring Derek Babcock in 2003.

Babcock taught for two years in Osceola County Schools. When school officials there learned of past allegations against Babcock in February 2005, he submitted a letter of resignation in which he assured school officials of his innocence.

That hasn't stopped him trying to get back into a classroom.

Nevada Superintendent of Public Instruction Keith Rheault said Babcock applied for a teaching certificate there but was not issued one. Rheault said he is barred by Nevada law from disclosing why the certificate was not issued.

Seneca school attorney George Mueller continues to defend how the school district handled the matter.

"School districts and a lot of government do not have the resources to prove that kind of conduct if it happened off the school grounds," Mueller said. "I suppose somebody could be mad at our school, at Seneca School District, for not firing the guy, but the truth is Babcock had an unqualified right to resign."

But Babcock also had leverage to get a job referral because the school district hoped to avoid the costly litigation incurred in tenured teacher dismissal cases.

Using open records laws, Small Newspaper Group obtained attorney billings from all Illinois school districts that retained outside counsel to fire a tenured teacher during a five year period. The average legal bill was $219,000.

Representatives of the state's two teacher unions contend this number overstates the typical cost of getting rid of a bad teacher, because many are "counseled out" of the profession rather than fired. This "counseling out" process can happen either through informal discussions with the teacher or through a contract like the one Babcock signed.

Small Newspaper Group obtained dozens of employment settlement agreements from school districts across Illinois. Almost universally, they include provisions barring school districts from sharing negative information during reference checks.

State Rep. Jerry Mitchell, R-Sterling, spent much of career as a school administrator and contends this is a primary way school districts get rid of bad teachers.

"It isn't right. It's not the way it should be. But the mindset of most administrators and school boards is that they need to solve their own problems. And often that means making your problem someone else's. That can mean giving a good reference to someone you want to get rid of," he said. "We ought to be as concerned about children in other school districts as we are about those in our own."

For Ms. Brockman, there is an edge of bitterness in how she believes the school district handled the Babcock case.

"They washed their hands of it, you know. They didn't want to deal with it. He was out of their school district and that's all that I think that they cared about -- that he was out of their school.

"If another situation ever comes up, they can't handle it the same way. Granted he lost his job, but there are so many innocent children out there. I don't want it to happen to anybody else."