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Schools Hiring Some Guilty of Sexual Misconduct, GAO Says

By guest blogger Sean Cavanagh

Schools in some cases have hired individuals with histories of sexual misconduct as teachers, coaches, janitors, and administrators, partly because of lax systems of background checks, a federal investigative report has found.

The Government Accountability Office documented 15 cases in which individuals guilty of past misconduct were hired or retained by schools. In 11 of those cases, the individuals in question had previously targeted children, and in six of them, the offenders used their new positions to abuse more children.

The report from the GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, was requested George Miller, a California Democrat who chairs the House Committee on Education and Labor.

"This report is horrific and incredibly troubling," Miller said in a statement. "It is very clear from GAO's work that there was a major breakdown in the schools highlighted in this report—and, quite possibly, in many more schools across the country."

The government investigators note that an earlier report, released in 2004 by the U.S. Department of Education, concluded that instances of school employees' misconduct were widespread. (Though that report's findings were criticized by some who said it overstated the extent of the wrongdoing.) The GAO was asked to examine the circumstances under which adults with histories of sexual misconduct were hired or kept on the job.

In one case cited by the GAO, an Ohio teacher who had been forced to resign because of inappropriate conduct with female students was nonetheless given a recommendation by a school superintendent calling him "an outstanding teacher." He was later hired by a neighboring district, where he was convicted for sexual battery against a 6th grade girl.

The report also described the case of a California administrative school employee who was convicted a decade ago of restraining and molesting a minor, the GAO report found. A school where he worked was notifed of his arrest and conviction by police in 2000—and again by the GAO in 2010—but did not fire him, investigators said. Only after the GAO referred the case to the state attorney general's office and the California Department of Education was the employee placed on administrative leave. He has since resigned, according to the report.

Education Week has written extensively about instances of teachers and school employees engaging in sex and other inappropriate relationships with students. For background on the topic, see our series "A Trust Betrayed," as well as subsequent coverage.

The new GAO report points to several reasons why individuals with histories of misconduct slip through the hiring system and end up in schools. In some cases, school districts allow teachers who might have been fired or disciplined for sexually inappropriate actions to resign. This means that these employees are able to truthfully tell new employers that they had never been fired from a previous position. In 10 of the 15 cases documented by the GAO, school officials did not conduct performance background checks prior to hiring the individuals in question.

"The documents we reviewed and the individuals we spoke with indicated that the schools chose to forgo these checks for a variety of reasons," the GAO said, "including that they felt the process was too time-consuming and costly, or that the positions in question would not require daily interaction with children."

But those officials were often mistaken. In some of the cases, another pattern of abuse followed.

In other instances, school districts' criminal background checks were simply inadequate. Some only revealed offenses in the states where those transgressions occurred. In one case, an employee used a nickname, rather than a full name, which masked a history of misconduct. None of the schools examined by the GAO are conducting recurring background checks, meaning they would not catch offenses that occur while individuals are already working at a school, investigators said.

Congressman Miller said he wanted to work with Republicans to look at "legislative options" to prevent workers who have abused children from showing up in schools.

"Our schools have a fundamental obligation to children and parents that all students are safe at school at all times," he said. "What we see here is a major violation of that trust and very poor judgment by some school officials."

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