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The case of teacher Bill Beck: Warning signs ignored

By Scott Reeder, sreeder@qconline.com
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Photo: Todd Mizener
Former Moline School Superintendent Ben McAdams knows the challenge of investigating a teacher accused of sexually abusing students. In 2000, former sixth-grade teacher and high school golf coach Bill Beck pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse and one count of attempted criminal sexual abuse.
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SPRINGFIELD -- When Ben McAdams was Moline school superintendent, a particular teacher was a concern to him: Bill Beck.

The sixth-grade teacher and high school golf coach had put a combination lock on the front door of his home and shared its code with boys at Moline High School.

According to court records, he told them they were free to hang out at his house, drink alcohol, use his pool table, play foosball or swim in his pool.

The offer attracted a steady stream of students.

When a parent complained about the then-41-year-old teacherís conduct, Superintendent McAdams reprimanded Beck and ordered him not to entertain students in his home.

Beck continued to teach 6th graders at Jane Addams Elementary School and coach high school boy's golf, despite the written reprimand. When contacted at his Moline home Tuesday by Small Newspaper Group, Beck declined comment.

Unlike 43 other states Illinois does not have any state investigators to check out complaints of educator misconduct.

The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing has five staff investigators, while Illinois has none.

To determine how Illinois compares to other states, Small Newspaper Group obtained information on 20,000 cases of teacher licensure discipline from all 50 state departments of education. The newspaper group then built a computer database to analyze it.

The investigation found that Illinois ranked 49th in the percentage of teacher certificates it chooses to suspend or revoke.

There are several reasons for this:

* Illinois school districts are not required to report disciplinary actions against teachers to the teacher certification board.

* The teacher certification board has lacked hearing officers to judge allegations of misconduct.

* Unlike 43 state education departments, Illinois' does not have investigators on staff to review allegations against certified personnel

For the most part, Illinois does not revoke a teaching certificate unless the person is found guilty of one of the crimes listed in a statute that mandates automatic revocation.

"That is not exactly holding the bar very high for a profession -- often misconduct is tolerated as long as it's not criminal," said Mary Jo McGrath, a California lawyer specializing teacher misconduct cases.

McGrath added state education departments need investigators.

"If you don't have investigators, how on earth are you going to gather evidence to pull the license of a bad teacher? You can't rely on school districts to do this. Educators aren't trained to be investigators.

"And the police have a higher burden of proof to meet for their investigations. If it's not a slam dunk, a lot of times police departments won't pursue it. And of course police don't investigate unprofessional conduct or other non-criminal matters."

For example, Gary Walker, director of educator ethics for Georgia, said his agency handles cases like Beck's quite differently than Illinois.

"Teachers are there to be role models not the student's friend," Walker said. "The first thing we would look at is whether this teacher was maintaining a professional relationship with his students. We'd let the police do their own investigation as to whether a crime was violated. Our goal is to investigate, get these people out of the classroom and keep children safe."

From 1997 until 2006, the Illinois State Teacher Certification Board revoked the certifications about four teachers for conduct not stemming from a criminal conviction. During the same period, New York revoked the teaching certificates of 54 teachers for non-criminal conduct such as test fraud, inappropriate relations with students or sexual harassment.

"I work with school systems all across the country. These differences are not about conduct they are about different states holding teachers to different standards," McGrath said.

Moline teacher Bill Beck did eventually lose his teaching certificate. But it wasn't until the next school year after a tragedy came to light and he was convicted of a crime.

"Two boys from the high school had come to an elementary principal, who used to be at the high school. And these kids told him that they'd been abused by Mr. Beck. I said get them to put it in writing," McAdams said.

At this point the Moline Police Department was contacted and a criminal investigation was launched. In 2000, Beck pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse and one count of attempted criminal sexual abuse.

Beck was sentenced to six years in prison. He has been released, but declined to be interviewed for this story.

The sentencing judge, James Teros, said Beck's swimming pool, pool table and foosball table -- and the opportunity to drink alcohol -- were part of the lure to get victims to his house.

"He might as well have been holding up a sign that said, `I'm a molester.' If a report on this reprimand had come across a investigator's desk in California, the first thing they would say is: `This needs to looked into further," said McGrath. "It's too bad that didn't happen in Illinois."