North Carolina policymakers have expended considerable time and money trying to eliminate potential external threats to the state’s public schools. But what they didn’t tell us is that the public schools seem to do too little to protect students once they enter the classroom.
Hardly a week goes by without some charge of teacher misconduct filling the local media. Consider news stories about a Johnston County teacher, Latoya Snead. In early 2016, over the course of three months, Snead sent hundreds of text messages to one of her eighth-grade male students.
Last November, the (Raleigh) News & Observer reported that Devon Ross Lategan, a science teacher at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, was facing felony criminal charges for having sex with a high school student when he worked at Henderson County Public Schools.
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 he worked at South Lenoir High School.
Aren’t teachers’ backgrounds supposed to be checked before they enter the classroom? The present problems seem to derive from an awful combination of incompetence and unwillingness to address the dangers.
The Snead case illustrates these points. Because she 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. 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. No action was recommended regarding Snead’s license.
In the meantime, Snead was hired by Sampson County Schools because investigators found she had a “clean” record. When asked, officials at Sampson County Schools said they had no knowledge of any investigation or allegations against Snead. School officials even said Snead had been a “model employee.”
It’s fair to say the Lategan and Bennett cases in part derive from the same loopholes in the administrative process and from school districts lacking timely information on teachers’ backgrounds.
This is not a new problem. In 2008, a young staff attorney with the State Board of Education (SBE), Katie Cornetto, saw a less-than-stellar system for checking teacher licensure and backgrounding. She pushed for a task force to address teacher licensing and ethics issues. The commission issued its final report in 2010. Six years later not a single one of the report’s recommendations has been implemented.
That’s dismaying in light of a July 2015 news investigation by WNCN in Raleigh stating 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? In 2016, USA Today reported about the poor quality of systems tracking teacher discipline around the country. North Carolina was ranked as one of the worst offenders, having received a failing grade, F.
Then-state Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson defended the state’s process for backgrounding teachers. She said additional steps were 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.
The discussion also generated attempts to address the problem through legislation. Last session, state Sen. Chad Barefoot (R-Wake) introduced a bill that among other things would have provided for providing fingerprinting and criminal background histories to local boards of education and for centralizing teacher licensing in the SBE. The bill, however, did not pass.
Such an outcome is certainly disappointing. However, it’s important to realize legislation is not required to solve this problem. Many believe the state DPI just needs to collect the right information and set up a clearinghouse for teacher background checking. The reality is more could be done without requiring legislation.
If we really are committed to protecting our children, we’ll take the steps necessary to make sure our schools and classrooms are safe. If we fail to, parent anger and frustration will certainly grow.
This article originally appeared in the NC Capitol Connection newspaper.