Home | Links | Reaction | Supporting Documents | Email this page

Editorial: Let’s keep Illinois schools free from known predators

The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus

It’s been called ‘‘passing the trash," ‘‘the dance of the lemons,’’ or  ‘‘passing the turkey.’’ But lurking behind such flippant labels are sexual predators hidden by a broken system that allows them to remain in our kids’ classrooms.

 An exhaustive investigation by Small Newspaper Group’s Scott Reeder found that Illinois ranks 49th in the rate of teacher certificates it revokes or suspends for teacher misconduct. During the past six years, one in 2,500 Illinois educators lost teaching credentials through suspension, revocation or surrender. In the same period, 1 in 57 Illinois doctors lost medical licenses, and 1 in 97 attorneys lost law licenses. And unlike 43 other states, Illinois does not have state investigators to check out educator misconduct allegations.

It’s important to note that concerns raised here involve a small fraction of the 127,600 teachers in Illinois. The vast majority are dedicated, hardworking professionals who do the tough job of molding our children’s futures. The bad apples discussed in the series are a handful of the lot. But even a handful of sexual predators allowed to remain in classrooms can victimize countless innocent children. Said Dennis Kuba, an Illinois State Police investigator: ‘‘The problem isn’t that many teachers do this. The problem is how many children one pedophile can harm once he becomes a teacher.’’ Such predators too often abuse kids throughout their careers, going about their nasty business undetected. And when they are discovered, they often quietly resign, take their teaching certificates and head down the road free to prey on children in other unsuspecting school systems. ‘‘It’s all about how much a state is willing to invest in investigating these cases,’’ Bart Zabin, New York state’s principal educator misconduct investigator, told Mr. Reeder in the series, ‘‘Hidden Violations,’’ which ends today. In Illinois only seven cases of alleged educator misconduct have been examined by hearing officers from the Illinois Teacher Certification Board during the last decade.

Officials who strive to do right by kids often are stymied by the process. Take the Downers Grove School District. It paid $134,799 in legal fees to dump one male teacher. Here’s what tenure hearing officer Julius Menacker said in upholding the firing. ‘‘A teacher should not have to be warned against improper touching of female students. Asking students for synonyms for oral sex, asking them why semen tastes salty and the other confirmed improprieties of (the teacher) are clearly beyond common standards of decency and professional behavior for high school teachers.” From that, one might surmise, the system worked. Except that the teacher involved was back teaching in another classroom within a year. He lost his job, but not his teaching certificate. That’s not unusual. In the last decade there has been no action taken to either revoke or suspend the teaching certifications of fired tenured teachers in Illinois. Mr. Reeder found that the bulk of the investigative work in such cases is left to those who are ill-equipped to do it, understaffed regional schools superintendent offices.

Those who should know which predatory teachers to watch out for say they don’t even know how many there are. Cases before the Illinois State Board of Education are confidential, but agency estimates of currently active cases range from 100 to 250. The Department of Children and Family Services reported 3,871 complaints against educators and found credible evidence of abuse in 323 of them in the last eight years. While some were minor, others were not, and not one resulted in a suspension or revocation of a certificate based solely on DCFS findings.

Many say that predators could be cut from the classroom through regular fingerprint checks of teaching applicants. The civil libertarian in us is loath to treat all teachers as criminals. On the other hand, we’re sympathetic to those who wonder why Illinois allows fingerprinting and background checks for school bus drivers, but does not apply the same standards to those who would stand before students as an authority figure in the classroom. Lawmakers are welcome to tackle that thorny issue. Meanwhile, however, there are steps that state education officials and the General Assembly can take immediately that are far less controversial and more effective. They include:

-- Creating a method for reporting abuse and a clear system for handling the reports;

-- Transferring responsibility for investigating the reports from the regional education offices to trained investigators;

-- Creating a state-level investigatory arm with enough trained staff to thoroughly probe allegations that surface;

-- Requiring the investigative unit to complete reviews in a timely manner, say one year;

-- Requiring the state certification board to conduct hearings on all complaints investigators find credible;

-- Requiring districts to tell one another about confirmed cases of sexual misconduct by job applicants;

Illinois’ new schools chief knows there’s a problem and says he wants to fix it now. Schools Superintendent Christopher Koch told Mr. Reeder, ‘‘There are cases here that we know about. We need to investigate them. We’re going to need that capacity. There’s no question about it. Given the size of our state it’s not going to be an individual that we would need. It would be five to 10 individuals.’’

We’ll leave the experts to talk about the numbers, but we agree with the sentiment. Legislators and administrators should act now. 

It’s imperative that sexual predators never return to teach in any classroom.