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Teacher screens fail students

By Scott Reeder, sreeder@qconline.com
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State Representative Careen Gordon, D-Morris.
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Photo: James Marshall Photography
Former Maine Gov. Angus King.

SPRINGFIELD -- In July 1977, Mark Wolff was a 12-year-old attending music camp at Western Illinois University in Macomb.

"I was an irresponsible kid and didn't lock the door to my dorm room before I went to sleep. Someone entered my room, and, well, he violated me," said Mr. Wolff, who is now a 43-year-old college professor in Oneonta, N.Y.

"I'd never seen the man before. I have no idea why he picked me. Maybe he spotted me somewhere at the camp and followed me. I just don't know."

Police eventually identified George Tolbert as the man who entered the room, pushed back Mr. Wolff's covers and performed an oral sex act on the slumbering child. Mr. Tolbert pleaded guilty to indecent liberties with a child and burglary in that 1977 case and received probation. In an unrelated 1978 case, he victimized another child and again was convicted of indecent liberties. He was sentenced to four years in prison.

Even with three Illinois felony convictions and a stint in prison, Mr. Tolbert was able to obtain an Illinois teaching certificate. In 1993, he was certified to be a school guidance counselor. In 2003, he received an elementary school teaching certificate. He worked in Chicago Public Schools as a guidance counselor and a teacher for 11 years.

The school district's response to learning it had a twice-convicted child molester in its ranks? He was allowed to resign in 2004. State officials were not informed of his convictions, and his teaching certificate remained valid until it expired this year. Mr. Tolbert declined to discuss the matter with Small Newspaper Group.

His case illustrates the pitfalls in how Illinois screens those entering its teaching ranks.

A state-by-state analysis of criminal history screening procedures and disciplinary actions conducted by Small Newspaper Group found Illinois to be among the most lax in both areas.

Perhaps these two statistics best illustrate the state's legacy of indifference:

- Illinois ranks 49th in the nation in the rate at which it suspends or revokes teaching certificates.

- In 2004, Illinois became the 46th state to require FBI background checks for those entering the teaching profession. But the law exempted all teachers hired before 2004 from background checks.

"It looks to me like the state not only has had a blind eye toward bad people within the teaching ranks, but has done little for many years to prevent these people from joining the profession," said Jeff Mays, executive director of the Illinois Business Roundtable, a group that has pushed for greater accountability within the teaching profession.

Unless a public school teacher takes a job in another school district or state law is changed, educators hired before 2004 will not have to undergo a background check for the remainder of their careers.

Both of the state's major teacher unions, the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, say they oppose fingerprinting educators because of cost and logistics concerns.

Rep. Careen Gordon, D-Morris, introduced legislation to fingerprint all teachers but said lobbyists for the two teachers' unions objected saying that it "picked on teachers." Her bill was amended to fingerprint just those entering the profession or moving from one school district to another.

"People have been approaching me and saying, 'I can't believe teachers aren't putting children first. They are choosing to stand behind the worst people in their own profession rather than protect children.' That's just not right," Ms. Gordon said.

Rep. Gordon said she will reintroduce legislation in the upcoming session to require all of the state's teachers to go through FBI background checks.  

Because Illinois was one of the last states to implement FBI background checks for its new hires, some worry that Illinois is a haven for educators with criminal convictions.

"Sex offenders are mobile. They go where the gittin' is good. The later a state implemented background checks the more likely it is that pedophiles moved there to teach," said Tom Lawson, a national expert on employment screening and the owner of California-based Apscreen, which created one of the first national online databases of sex offenders.

Former Maine Gov. Angus King said this worry is what prompted Maine to take action. In 2000 -- four years before Illinois -- Maine became the 44th state to enact a teacher fingerprinting measure. Unlike Illinois' law, Maine's was for both new and existing teachers.

"It was the most controversial initiative during my administration. The teacher unions were angry about their members having to be fingerprinted. But we were one of the last states to require fingerprinting, and our education department would get calls where they would be asked: 'Does your state fingerprint teachers?' When the caller was told 'no' the caller would just hang up. That frightened me."

But the effectiveness of Maine's law cannot be publicly evaluated because, as a compromise to Maine's teacher unions, legislators passed a law prohibiting the public release of any information on the number of teachers who have lost their licenses as a result of the fingerprinting, said Mal Leary, president of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition.

No one knows how many teachers in Illinois would be weeded out if the state required all educators to undergo FBI background checks.

But what is known is that the state's screening system has allowed people into the teaching ranks who never should have been there.

For example, Thornton school counselor John E. Wheatley was convicted by a judge of sexual battery in 1989. This conviction didn't prevent him from subsequently being hired by four other Illinois school districts.

He served as a high school principal in Orangeville in 1996 and in St. Anne in 1997. He also worked as a guidance counselor in Astoria in 1991 and finished an eight-year stint with Chicago Public Schools three months ago. In 2006, Chicago schools paid him an annual salary of $72,589.

But his case is hardly isolated. Suburban, downstate and Chicago schools consistently have failed to adequately review the backgrounds of job applicants.

During the course of its investigation, Small Newspaper Group found numerous examples of Illinois licensing teachers who have been convicted of serious crimes or who have lost their teaching certificates elsewhere.

For example, in 1994, Michael Buehler was certified to teach in Illinois and hired as an elementary school principal in Warsaw School District in Hancock County despite having his name being on a national database of educators who have lost their teaching credentials. He worked as a principal for about seven years said Don Roskamp, president of the board of education. About six months after the school district promoted him to superintendent, Mr. Buehler's past came to light and he was fired.

Mr. Buehler had surrendered his Wisconsin teaching credentials in 1993 after a $770,000 lawsuit settlement with a former student who alleged that Mr. Buehler had impregnated her three times and engaged 400 to 500 acts of sexual intercourse beginning when she was 13.

Gregg Heidenreich, the attorney for school district in the 1993 case, said there was no admission of liability in the settlement. Mr. Buehler did not return a reporter's phone call seeking comment.

According to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction records, police did not become involved because the woman identified as "Jane Doe" in court documents came forward as an adult, after the statute of limitations had expired. In a 1993 letter to Wisconsin education officials, Mr. Buehler disputed the woman's allegations.

After the Wisconsin allegations came to light, he surrendered his Illinois teaching credentials in 2001.

The Illinois Teacher Certification Board knowingly has issued teaching certificates to individuals who have convicted of violent felonies.

For example, when Chassappasi Rain applied for a job with Chicago Public Schools in 1990, he put on his application that he had shot two people in 1978. The state licensed him and the school district hired him despite his conviction for assault with intent to do bodily harm.

Mr. Rain was fired 12 years later, after he wrote a letter to a female teacher who Mr. Rain contends was sexually harassing him. A tenure hearing officer described the letter as "vicious, graphic, obscene and threatening."

Despite being fired by Chicago Public Schools and having a felony record, Mr. Rain continues to be certified to teach in Illinois and is employed by Dolton School District, where he has taught seventh-grade for the past four years.

"In this country, there is a mean, cruel vicious streak that says, if you have a felony conviction, doors are no longer open to you," Mr. Rain said. "If I don't say so myself, I am an excellent teacher. There is nobody living or dead that can say I don't have the right to seek a decent living. The state of Illinois has nothing to hassle me about."

Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, or SESAME, a national organization that works to prevent sex abuse by educators, said, in addition to background checks for new hires, criminal histories should be checked periodically during a teacher's career.

"The people we are entrusting with our children's well-being should have to go through the same battery of screening much like law enforcement officers undergo to deem them fit to serve. That includes psychiatric evaluations, polygraph tests in addition to background checks. This type of scrutiny will weed out many bad apples simply because they will not subject themselves to this level of screening.

"The states that worry me are the ones like Illinois where very few cases are pursued," she said. "Misconduct is going on there as much as anywhere else, but it is being ignored. Where is the outrage? Where is the concern? Children are being harmed. We need to keep these people away from our children."