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Chicago maintains secret files on teachers

By Scott Reeder, sreeder@qconline.com.

SPRINGFIELD -- Imagine a place where the identity of educators convicted of sexually abusing children or stealing from taxpayers is kept secret.

That place is Illinois, Chicago to be more precise.

For at least a decade, the Chicago Board of Education has maintained secret files on some of the criminals who have slipped into the school district's teaching ranks.

Portions of the secret files were released to Small Newspaper Group in October after a contentious open records battle that involved the Illinois Attorney General's Office pressuring the state's largest school system to release the documents to the newspaper group.

"It was one of the longest fights we've ever been involved with. Clearly, this information should be public record. There are a variety of reasons why people in government don't want to release public records. One of the reasons is they don't want to take the heat for what is in them," Public Access Counselor Terry Mutchler of the Attorney General's Office said.

In fact, the secret files read more like a tawdry novel than bureaucratic memos.

The documents reveal that drug-dealing, prostitution, attempted murder, criminal sexual assault, embezzlement, theft, reckless homicide and stalking are among the crimes committed by those hired to educate children.

The state's largest school district routinely failed to warn state education officials or other school districts of problem teachers.

For example, the school district conducted an internal investigation that revealed that a Chicago high school teacher twice had had sexual encounters with a 15-year-old girl, a CPS inspector general report said. The teacher was not charged with a crime but did resign from the Chicago school district after an internal investigation. According to the CPS documents, the unidentified teacher remains certified to teach in Illinois and is now teaching in Rockford Public Schools.

No one within Chicago Public Schools warned their counterparts in Rockford.

When asked why Rockford was not notified, CPS deputy legal counsel Lara Shayne said that CPS has no record of being contacted by Rockford school officials. But documents turned over by CPS to Small Newspaper Group show that Chicago school officials were aware that the unidentified teacher was in Rockford teaching this year.

Upon being informed by a reporter on Oct. 30 of information in the secret files, Steve Katz, general counsel for Rockford School District 205, had this to say:

"This is absolutely sinful. Rockford School District would never knowingly hire a teacher who had sex with a 15-year-old. What kind of reference did Chicago give this person? It couldn't have been a bad one or we wouldn't have hired him. If one of our principals knew this about someone's background and hired him anyway, that principal would be fired. Legally, Chicago didn't have to warn us, but it certainly is immoral for them not to have."

Before the documents were released to the newspaper group, a black marker was used to redact the teacher's name on the grounds that it was a confidential part of his personnel record. CPS only released the names of teachers convicted of crimes, but not those who were disciplined after an internal investigation or those who have yet to stand trial.

Mr. Katz said he has repeatedly contacted Chicago Public School officials to try and learn the identity of this teacher, but CPS officials have refused to release the information.

On Friday, he said the individual has been identified. Mr. Katz declined to identify the teacher but said personnel action is being taken against the individual.

The documents also reveal significant problems in how the state and local school districts screen out those who should not be near children.

For example:

- Elementary school teacher Carmen Gillard pleaded guilty to battery after she bit a police officer on the forearm and grabbed another officer in the crotch at her home after becoming irate that police would not arrest her elderly mother for losing the house keys, police said. The non-tenured teacher lost her job with Chicago Public Schools in 2005 but remains certified to teach in Illinois.

- Another teacher, Murntaz Rudnick, stabbed a neighbor with a kitchen knife. She resigned her position with CPS and served a stint in prison for aggravated battery. School officials have designated her ineligible to be rehired, but no action was taken to revoke her teaching certificate.

- Special education teacher Osevell Moody was found guilty of numerous counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault after he sexually abused a 14-year-old mentally retarded girl. Shortly after his 2002 arrest he left his position with CPS. But Mr. Moody remained licensed in Illinois for three more years, according to the CPS documents.

The Illinois State Board of Education was unaware of any of these incidents and consequently was unable to act upon them, Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the board, said.

In another instance, Chicago Public Schools did inform state officials of a problem employee. According to CPS documents, Paul J. Bruck served three years in an Arizona prison after being convicted of felony theft and marijuana possession. He was hired by Chicago Public Schools in 1992, where he taught until 2001. According to the inspector general, he did not disclose his convictions on his job application. When school officials learned of his convictions, he was fired.

Mr. Vanover said in April 2001 state officials repeatedly mailed certification revocation notices to Mr. Bruck, but all were sent back marked "return to sender." Since state officials were unable to locate Mr. Bruck, they were unable to move ahead with revocation proceedings, he said.

"Since we were unable to locate him, we put a 'freeze' on his certificate which would have notified anyone seeking to hire him that there was a problem," Mr. Vanover said.

Despite this "freeze" Mr. Bruck continued as a teacher in Illinois.

He was hired on Jan. 9, 2002, by North Chicago 187, where he taught until March 27, 2003, said Karla Hasty, human resources director for the North Chicago school district. North Chicago Superintendent Lauri Hakanen did not respond to additional questions regarding Mr. Bruck.

Because the Illinois State Board of Education did not suspend or revoke any of these individuals' certificates, none of these teachers' names were reported to a national clearinghouse of educators who have lost their teaching credentials.

The private database compiled by the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification is the main tool state departments of education use to track problem educators moving about the country.

Unlike states such as New York or New Mexico, there is no law in Illinois that requires school districts to report disciplinary actions taken against educators to state officials.

This often leaves Illinois State Board of Education officials ignorant of problem educators and unable to take appropriate action against their teaching certificate, Mr. Vanover said.