- NC spends millions to keep schools safe from intruders
- System for checking teacher background is inadequate
- NC DPI should adopt recommendations from 2010 SBE report or implement new legislation
In recent years North Carolina has spent millions to make school buildings safe from intruders and ensure that school and emergency personnel can respond promptly to every eventuality … from outside the school’s walls. While policies have focused great attention and expense on addressing potential external threats, policymakers are however failing to ensure that students are safe and protected once they are inside the school.
WRAL.com recently ran an excellent story about a Johnston county teacher, Latoya Snead, who over the course of three months earlier this year had sent hundreds of text messages to one of her eighth-grade male students. The texts, sent at all hours of the day and night, contained many expressions of the teacher’s affection and compassion for the boy. The mother of the student discovered the texts and thought the teacher’s actions clearly crossed the line. She contacted WRAL and school district authorities, who commenced an investigation. Snead was suspended by the school while the investigation was ongoing but later resigned her position.
Several weeks later, however, Snead was hired as an eighth-grade teacher at Union Middle School in Sampson County. After learning of the WRAL.com investigation, Sampson County officials suspended Snead with pay, pending the results of their own investigation.
Parents barely had time to catch their breath before the News & Observer reported last Friday that Devon Ross Lategan, a science teacher at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, is facing felony criminal charges for having sex with a high school student when he worked at Henderson County Public Schools. According to a spokesman for the Wake County Public Schools, Lategan has been suspended with pay, pending the results of his case. Lategan resigned his teaching position with Wake County Public Schools on Nov. 28.
The same story mentioned that earlier in the month another Wake County teacher, Timothy Allen Bennett, a music teacher at Sanderson High School, was also arrested on charges of having sex with a 17-year-old male student when Bennett worked at South Lenoir High School.
These stories assault our moral senses and our sensibilities. They also shatter our vision of schools as safe and nurturing environments where children can learn, explore and grow. How does this happen? That’s a question we must ask – especially when we’re told we already have laws and administrative processes on the books to prevent such problems.
What happened – or didn’t happen – in Johnston and Sampson County in part helps to answer that question. Since Snead resigned her position in Johnston County before the conclusion of a formal investigation, there was no formal complaint, criminal allegation or paper trail following her. According to the WRAL investigation, after Snead resigned, Johnston County Schools forwarded the case to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction (DPI), which oversees cases involving ethics and teacher licensure. In the meantime, Snead was hired by Sampson County Schools because investigators found she had a “clean” record. When asked, Sampson County Schools officials said they had no knowledge of any investigation or allegations against Snead. School officials even said Snead had been a “model employee.”
When the Department of Public Instruction receives a case such as this, its Ethics Advisory Committee (EAC) handles the investigation. EAC makes recommendations to the state superintendent regarding teacher licensing and ethics. In mid-August the EAC recommended that Superintendent June Atkinson – who later agreed – “not to take any disciplinary action against your North Carolina teaching license”, in reference to Ms. Snead.
Mindboggling is the only way to describe the decision. However, the same word comes to mind when you realize EAC bureaucrats had not even seen the texts before they recommended that Atkinson not take any disciplinary action. When asked about the case, Atkinson said the committee never received the texts and that teacher licenses have been suspended for far less serious violations. Of course, you might also say EAC never asked for them, as dumbfounding as it sounds.
You can’t pass a law requiring all the evidence to be available before you make a major decision. That’s a common sense test. Unfortunately, EAC, DPI and Johnston County Schools all flunked that test. The case clearly fell through the cracks.
However, there are cracks that DPI seems unwilling to remedy. Johnston County officials said they sent materials to DPI. However, aside from licensure there was no other question DPI was investigating, even though they likely knew of the investigations. The problem is rooted in a lack of communication, from district to DPI or DPI to district. It’s a simple step, but as you can see, when there is a lack of communication and a lack of uniform processes, and screening is inaccurate, it compromises the entire screening process. The consequences are significant.
In light of these developments, Atkinson said the department is reviewing their processes. It was the right thing to say but inactions speak louder than words. This is not a new problem.
In 2008, a young staff attorney with the State Board of Education, Katie Cornetto, saw a less-than-stellar system for checking teacher licensure and backgrounding. She saw a problem and pushed for a task force to address teacher licensing and ethics issues. (I blogged on this topic here.).
In 2010 Atkinson received the report containing fifteen recommendations[i]. The recommendations included hiring more investigators to prosecute teacher misconduct, fingerprinting and allowing the State Board to share background information with local school districts. Six years later not one of the recommendations has been implemented.
You could say nothing has happened. But that wouldn’t be true – a lot has happened. A July 2015 news investigation by WNCN stated that between 2010 and 2015, North Carolina teachers have been charged more than 700 times with sexual misconduct with students.
North Carolina’s lax teacher backgrounding has earned the state a reputation for being a “cesspool” for the teaching profession. Teachers who were fleeing troubled pasts or are trying to find a new start might be more likely to resurface in North Carolina.
How bad is the problem? Earlier this year, USA Today reported about the poor quality of systems tracking teacher discipline around the country. The article ranked states on the quality of their systems for checking teacher backgrounds. North Carolina was one of the worst offenders, having received a failing grade, F.
Tonya Maxwell of the (Asheville) Citizen-Times wrote an excellent article about how this issue plays out in school districts across North Carolina – and how teachers with checkered backgrounds moved around from district to district.
The report generated considerable discussion in North Carolina, as well as proposed legislation. In a News & Observer article on the subject, Atkinson defended the state’s process for backgrounding teachers. Atkinson said some steps are being taken to ensure the identification of people who should not be in the classroom or get licenses, such as an electronic licensing system that incorporated automatic checks with a national database. Atkinson continued:
I’d say that our success rate is over 99 percent … Of course having just one person in the classroom who should not be there is one too many. But in the big scheme of things, I think that our system has been effective over 99 percent of the time.
I don’t know if many of the students, parents or teachers involved in North Carolina public schools would agree with Atkinson’s statements. Screening teachers to make sure our classrooms are safe learning environments and making sure districts have the information they need when making personnel decisions is something with which few would disagree.
Last session, state Sen. Chad Barefoot (R-Wake) introduced the Protect Children in Schools Act that among other things would have provided for centralizing licensing in the State Board of Education. The bill also called for providing fingerprinting and criminal background histories to local boards of education. The bill, however, did not pass.
While that’s disappointing, it’s important to realize legislation is not required to solve this problem. Many believe legislation is not even needed. DPI just needs to collect the right information and serve as a clearinghouse for background checking. It’s not rocket science.
What’s even more disappointing is that there doesn’t seem to be a will to correct this problem. That leaders of our state’s education system tolerated lax protections for students and teachers for so long is shameful. If they are truly committed to keeping our schools safe, more needs to be done to protect our children.
If they continue to do the same, we only guarantee the horror stories will continue.
[i] The report is no longer available on the State Board of Education web site. When a copy is obtained, the link will be activated.