By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 25, 2010; A12
For nearly three decades, Kevin Ricks exploited gaps in a system that is supposed to keep sexual predators out of the classroom. He landed teaching jobs at one school after another -- public and private, urban and rural, domestic and foreign -- despite mounting evidence of his troubling personal relationships with male students.
The emerging portrait of Ricks as a serial sexual abuser raises questions about why schools continued to hire him and what could have been done to stop him.
Maryland, Virginia and other states have long sought to bolster safeguards for students. They have required criminal background checks for prospective school employees, created tougher penalties for sex crimes committed by educators or others in positions of authority, and given employers liability protections to encourage them to speak candidly during reference checks. Many states also have required school systems to file reports when teachers are convicted of sexual crimes or resign amid allegations of abuse, so that their licenses can be reviewed or revoked.
None of these measures stopped Ricks. He held at least 12 teaching positions from 1982 until his arrest in February at Osbourn High School in Manassas.
Each time Ricks applied for a teaching job in Maryland and Virginia, he should have undergone a criminal background check, answered questions about any past felony convictions, and verified that he had a license or was on track to get one.
But somehow he worked for a year in Danville, Va., public schools without a teaching license on record with the state. In Maryland, Caroline County school officials who suspected abuse allowed Ricks to leave on a technicality, and their concerns never reached his future employers in Baltimore and Manassas. And Manassas school officials never discovered that Ricks spent a weekend in jail for a felony theft conviction soon after he was hired.
"We can have requirements and regulations and statutes and mandatory background checks, fingerprinting and required reporting," said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education. "But if the school divisions do not do their part, we are still going to have problems."
"I am furious that this could happen, but I understand that people who have this kind of intelligence can fool us," Manassas Schools Superintendent Gail Pope said.
What's more, questions about a shoplifting episode while Ricks worked in Japan apparently never made it back to his U.S. employers. Warning signs that flared during his work with exchange students might not have been transmitted to relevant schools or law enforcement agencies. And his employment record at several private schools in the United States is difficult to trace.
Although Ricks offers an especially startling example, his case is emblematic of a persistent problem in schools.
In 2004, a congressionally mandated study estimated that one in 10 students from kindergarten through 12th grade were victims of some form of sexual misconduct by a school employee -- from being told a dirty joke or shown pornography to being inappropriately touched or raped. In 2007, an Associated Press investigation found more than 2,500 teachers nationwide had licenses revoked, suspended or denied from 2001 through 2005 because of sexual misconduct.
Few counties or cities in the Washington area report a tally of teacher abuse allegations. Prince George's County is an exception: Police there investigated 41 allegations of sexual abuse by a teacher or school employee from 2005 to early 2010 and pressed charges in two cases. Another case emerged last week: A former assistant football coach and substitute teacher at Charles Flowers High School in Springdale was indicted on charges of having sex with two 15-year-old students on school grounds.
Allegations are hard to prove, experts say, and most instances of sexual abuse go unnoticed or unreported. Therefore, criminal background checks offer only a thin layer of defense. Often, it is up to local school officials to watch for suspicious behavior.
Teachers are generally required to report to local law enforcement or social service agencies when they have reasonable suspicion of sexual abuse. At several points in Ricks's career, colleagues or supervisors might have made calls as he publicly lavished attention on certain students or revealed obsessions about them.
Reports of inappropriate behavior that did reach Caroline officials in 2003 and Manassas officials in 2008 triggered inquiries. But each time officials concluded that they had no proof of laws being broken.
Legal experts and human resource directors in several local school systems said school administrators do not need a finding of illegal activity to take action against a teacher who exercises poor judgment with students or puts them at risk. Such behavior could prompt close monitoring and, in some cases, termination, they said.
Some experts say federal legislation is needed for a coherent approach to preventing teacher sexual abuse. Others say the answer could be found in the courts -- that more school divisions should be held liable for abuse that happens to children in their care. Most agree that better training is critical to help educators and students recognize the signs of grooming and abuse and to establish clear boundaries between them.
But the issue has not drawn widespread attention, experts say, because the public trusts educators.
"When people think of sexual abusers," said Charol Shakeshaft of Virginia Commonwealth University, lead author of the 2004 national study, "they don't think of teachers."