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Complete criminal histories of teachers can be hard to find

By Scott Reeder, sreeder@qconline.com

SPRINGFIELD -- One of the most confounding aspects of checking a person's criminal history is the crimes that don't show up.

This is especially frustrating to those screening for positions involving enormous amounts of trust, such as teachers.

There are a number of ways in Illinois that a person can plead guilty to breaking a state law but avoid having it show up on their criminal history.

These legal tools are increasing being embraced by courts but often hide disturbing incidents that school districts and parents would want to know about those educating their children.

For example:

-- During a 2002 bench trial, a judge found DeKalb high school teacher and girls’ swim coach Thomas O'Brien guilty of public indecency after testimony that O'Brien was seen masturbating as he stood naked in the doorway of his home's garage, Assistant State's Attorney Stephanie Klein said. Despite the judge's verdict, O'Brien resigned from his teaching job, received court supervision and eventually was able to have the offense expunged. All records of his case held by police, prosecutors and the court were destroyed, court and city officials said. No action was ever taken against his teaching certificate.

-- In 2003, Chicago Public School teacher Judith A. Howell, was arrested after a police officer observed her purchasing crack cocaine in the lobby of a public housing project. She pleaded guilty but received a "410 probation" which meant that a conviction was not placed on her record.

-- Kay Marchioni had her Ohio teaching certificate revoked for unprofessional conduct in 1988 after she used stolen credit card information to make purchases. She was convicted on two counts of attempted theft, according to documents with the Illinois State Board of Education. Despite her name being entered into a national database of teachers who have lost their licenses, she obtained an Illinois teaching certificate and was hired by Chicago Public Schools, where she taught for 14 years until she was fired. No action has been taken to suspend or revoke her Illinois teaching certificate. Her Ohio conviction has been expunged and no longer shows up on criminal background checks.

-- In 2003, Chicago Public Schools teacher Larry Jackson pleaded guilty to possession of controlled substance after a search of the teacher following an arrest found the teacher in possession of crack cocaine. He also received a "410 probation," which prevents the offense from being placed on his criminal record.

"If a teacher pleaded guilty to this type of behavior, wouldn't you at least want to know about it if you are a parent? Some of these offenses just should not ever be erased," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporter's Committee for the Free Press. "If it is a teacher in felony drug case, I'd want to at least know about it. I have a problem anytime you try to hide the public record."

But others see societal benefits to hiding some convictions. Among them is Margaret Colgate Love, who served as the head of the U.S. Department of Justice's Pardon Department under the George H. W. Bush and Clinton administrations. She now has a Washington, D.C., practice specializing in pardons.

"For God’s sake I don't want to hear that stuff. I think people want to know entirely too much these days," she said "I think we have to leave it up to our law enforcement professionals to decide when someone is going to get a criminal record and when they are not. I think these vigilante citizen groups that go around and label and tar everybody should shut up and sit down."

But it's not just an issue of information being kept from the public -- the information also is being withheld from those charged with licensing and disciplining teachers.

Matt Vanover, an Illinois State Board of Education spokesman, said there is no requirement that applicants reveal expunged crimes when they seek to be certified to teach in Illinois.

This is a sharp distinction from how other professions are regulated. For example, the Illinois Supreme Court mandates that law school graduates seeking to be licensed in Illinois disclose all criminal cases in which they have been charged, even if the matter has been expunged, said Joe Tybor, spokesman for the high court.

Some Illinois counties, including Cook, routinely seal files of cases involving juvenile sexual assault victims.

This leaves state regulators unable to discern details of certain criminal convictions involving teachers.

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

Wheatley resigned from Chicago Public Schools three months ago after eight years of service there. But he still is licensed to teach in Illinois.

Media accounts at the time of his conviction said he took a 16-year-old Thornwood High School girl, for whom he was a counselor, to a hotel room. But because Wheatley's files are sealed there is no way for the public to independently verify these accounts without obtaining a court order. Wheatley did not return a reporter's calls for comment.

Vanover said while the Illinois Teacher Certification Board tries to review criminal records of applicants, if a judge has sealed them they generally are not available to review.

Another manner in which bad conduct can be kept off an individual’s record is through deferred adjudications, in which a guilty plea is submitted to the court but a judge chooses not to enter it into the record if a person meets the certain requirements, such as successfully completing a probation or undergoing a drug rehabilitation program.

Certain criminal convictions such as murder, sexual abuse, drug possession or soliciting a prostitute are grounds for automatic revocation of a teaching certificate in Illinois. But if a teacher receives a deferred sentence the Illinois school code says that is not considered a conviction.

"This is a way that people can get spat out of the system before they get caught in it. It's not a good thing to get caught in, it can run your life, Love said.

"I would think the re-integrating felons into society would be something the press would want to encourage instead of giving us screaming headlines like: 'Felons found working in the schools.' I don't know what people think people with a criminal record are suppose to do. Shoot themselves?" she said.

But other states take a much tougher line on bad conduct among educators.

"We don't really look at whether an educator received probation or whether the record was expunged or even whether they were charged with a crime. We look at what their conduct was and whether it is acceptable for an educator in the state of Georgia," said Gary Walker, director of the Georgia Professional Standard's Commission's Ethics Division.

A national database of teacher misconduct constructed by Small Newspaper Group found that Georgia educators were 25 times more likely to have their teaching license suspended or revoked than their counterparts in Illinois.

A Small Newspaper Group analysis of data obtained from licensure regulatory agencies for Illinois physicians, attorneys and teachers found:

-Illinois lawyers were 25 times more likely to lose their professional licenses than Illinois teachers.

-Physicians in Illinois are 43 times more likely to lose their license than teachers are to lose their teaching certificate, the newspaper group found.

"If teachers dealt with adults all day, I think there would be more complaints about them. Dalglish said. "But because they deal with kids, I think they are allowed to skate."