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Laws fail to keep sex offenders from working in schools, federal report finds

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By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 16, 2010; 4:59 PM

People with a record of sexual misconduct are often able to land positions in public and private schools as teachers, support staff, volunteers or contractors, slipping through a system of background checks meant to thwart them, federal investigators reported Thursday.

Among the 15 cases the Government Accountability Office reviewed was that of former Manassas teacher Kevin Ricks, who pleaded guilty this year to abusing a male student and faces other sex and pornography charges related to his long career in education. The Washington Post in July disclosed questions about Ricks, his school employment record, and allegations against him of sexual advances toward several students in Maryland and Virginia.

Eleven of the 15 cases, the GAO reported, showed that offenders who had previously targeted children were able to obtain positions in schools.

"Even more disturbing," the report concluded, they were able in at least six cases to use those positions to abuse more children. The report found:

lAn Ohio teacher who worked in multiple public schools from 1993 to 2006 was forced to resign from one position because of inappropriate conduct with female students but received a letter of recommendation from his superintendent. He then landed a job in a neighboring district, where he was convicted of sexual battery against a sixth-grade girl.

lA teacher and registered sex offender who had lost his license in Texas was hired by Louisiana schools in 2006 and 2007 without undergoing a criminal background check. There is a warrant for his arrest on charges that he engaged in sexual conversations with a student.

lAn Arizona public school hired a teacher in 2001 after failing to conduct a criminal background check. The teacher had been convicted of sexually abusing a minor. Subsequently, he was convicted of having sexual contact with a young female student.

"This report is horrific and incredibly troubling. 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," said Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, who requested the investigation.

The GAO compared a national sex offender registry with employment databases in 19 states and the District from 2007 to 2009. It also examined public records and interviewed officials involved in dozens of cases from 2000 to 2010 that led to criminal convictions.

The report found at least three reasons why people with backgrounds of sexual misconduct could get hired.

First, many school officials who find misconduct allow teachers to resign quietly rather than pursue termination. Some officials said termination would be costly and time-consuming and would expose their districts to litigation. "One administrator told us that it could cost up to $100,000 to fire a teacher, even with a 'slam dunk case,' " the GAO reported.

In three cases, the GAO found that school officials provided positive recommendations or reference letters for teachers who voluntarily left but would have been subject to disciplinary action. Suspected abuse, the GAO found, was not always reported to law enforcement.

Second, school officials sometimes fail to perform criminal background checks before making hiring decisions. Even when they do, those checks can prove inadequate. Some schools only search criminal databases within their state and therefore miss convictions elsewhere.

Third, schools sometimes fail to notice red flags. The Arizona offender was hired even though he had answered "yes" on a job application about whether he had been convicted of "a dangerous crime against children." There was no indication that school officials followed up on that matter.


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