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Editorial: Teachers unions can take steps to protect our kids

The Dispatch and The Rock Island Argus

Representatives of Illinois' two major teacher unions, the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, declined to answers these two questions:

-- How confident should Illinois parents be that their child's teacher has been fully screened for past criminal convictions?

-- What, if anything, should the state do to further ensure that children are safe from being harmed by those entrusted to educate them?

Those are straightforward, important questions that deserve answers, especially in the wake of an eight-month investigation conducted by Small Newspaper Group. Among the findings:

-- Convicted child molesters and violent criminals have received teaching certificates in Illinois and are in Illinois classrooms.

-- Suspected pedophiles are routinely nudged by administrators from one school district to another.

-- Of the 50 states, only Virginia revokes or suspends fewer teaching certificates than Illinois.

-- No investigators are employed by the Illinois State Board of Education so reports of teacher misconduct are often not investigated or acted upon.

-- The Department of Children and Family Services has found 323 cases providing credible evidence of abuse by teachers, but none have had their licenses suspended or revoked.

-- Teachers hired before 2004 have not had to undergo a state-mandated national criminal background check.

-- Physicians are 43 times more likely than the state's teachers to have their license suspended or revoked. Lawyers are 25 times more likely than teachers to have their license suspended or revoked.

-- None of the tenured teachers fired in the last decade have also lost their teaching certificate and certification officials are not notified when a school district disciplines an educator.

The IEA and the IFT's role is to be advocates not only for their members but also for the children of Illinois. The two labor organizations are to be commended for decades of work that have established a firm place for teachers in the middle class. But both unions have steadfastly opposed such commonsense proposals as fingerprinting all teachers.

It wasn't until 2004 that Illinois began fingerprinting teachers entering the profession, making Illinois the 46th state to implement such a requirement.

Any Illinois educator hired before 2004 has not undergone a national criminal background check. When State Rep. Careen Gordon, D-Morris, proposed fingerprinting everyone, union lobbyists in Springfield helped slap down the proposal and it was eventually watered down to just include "new teachers."

The state of Illinois has done a lousy job of screening people entering the profession, for decades. It's easy to dismiss individual cases of misconduct as problems of urban school districts, but experience has  taught us that children are vulnerable in any part of the state.

It's time for Illinois to take additional steps:

-- Fingerprint all school employees and conduct national criminal background checks on each employee every five years.

-- Hire an investigative staff for the Illinois State Board of Education so that all serious allegations against educators can be followed up thoroughly and professionally. (To its credit the IEA endorsed this plan in response to the SNG investigation.)

-- Require school districts to inform the teacher certification board of all disciplinary action taken against teachers -- including employment settlements agreements in which employees are "counseled out" of a teaching post.

-- Prohibit job referrals from being part of these settlement agreements.

Both unions contend incidents of teachers abusing children are aberrations. They are quick to note that the vast majority of teachers are good people. The same can be said for public servants like police and clergy. Leaders in those fields and others often deny that anyone bad can be in such noble professions, but they are. It's worse when their potential victims are children.

They deserve better. It's time for both unions to take new steps to not only protect the image of a noble profession but also to protect the children we entrust with their members.