Illinois fails to resolve teacher misconduct incidents

Scott Reeder

A tinge of pain still can be heard in Rebecca Scott's voice as she talks of the price of speaking out.

Twenty years ago, she was front-page news across Illinois -- the woman who accused her high school teacher Kim Alan Courtwright of having a sexual relationship with her when she was a student.

“It was the most difficult thing I had done in my life -- having everyone I know hear the most personal parts of my life. But I did it because I didn't want others to go through what I did,” Scott said.

In response to her 1988 testimony, Illinois legislators passed a law making it a felony for teachers to have sex with their students -- even if they've reached the age of consent.

At the time, Scott's case became emblematic of Illinois' failing system for dealing with educator misconduct. Twenty years later, little has changed.

A seven-month national investigation conducted by Small Newspaper Group found that Illinois has one of the worst track records for removing errant teachers from the profession.

The investigation found:

- Among the 50 states, only Virginia revokes or suspends fewer teaching certificates than Illinois.

- No investigators are employed by the Illinois State Board of Education, so reports of teacher misconduct are often not investigated or acted upon.

- The Department of Children and Family Services has found 323 cases providing credible evidence of abuse by teachers, but none have had their licenses suspended or revoked.

- Teachers hired before 2004 have not had to undergo a state-mandated national criminal background check.

- Physicians are 43 times more likely than the state's teachers to have their license suspended or revoked. Lawyers are 25 times more likely than teacher to have their license suspended or revoked.

- None of the tenured teachers fired in the last decade have also lost their teaching certificate, and certification officials are not notified when a school district disciplines an educator.

Unlike most states, Illinois has never employed investigators to examine allegations against educators.

A backlog of cases awaiting further review came to light after repeated open records requests to the Illinois State Board of Education by the newspaper group. What is known is this backlog of cases exists. But its size remains a mystery. The agency's estimates range from 100 to 250 files.

The files are exempt from public inspection.

“Some of the people in those files have probably quit teaching years ago. Other files may have gotten a cursory review in the past. But each of these files has been identified by our legal staff as being in need of further review,” said Matt Vanover, a spokesman for the state board of education.

There are two ways Illinois teachers can have their certificates revoked.

The most common way is by being convicted of certain crimes for which state law mandates revocation. The other way is for the Illinois Teacher Certification Board to rule an educator's misconduct or performance warrants suspension or revocation of a certificate. Generally, these cases are heard by hearing officers, and their ruling may be appealed to the certification board.

But cases are seldom forwarded to hearing officers for review.

In fact, in the last 10 years, the certification hearing officers have only heard about seven cases.

“It's all about how much a state is willing to invest in investigating these cases,” said Bart Zabin, New York state's principal educator misconduct investigator.

Illinois State School Superintendent Christopher Koch, who was appointed to head the Illinois State Board of Education earlier this year, acknowledged that the way his agency deals with misconduct complaints is in need of significant reform.

In particular, the state needs to be able investigate complaints, he said.

“There are cases here that we know about. We need to investigate them,” Koch said. “We're going to need that capacity. There's no question about it. Given the size of our state, it's not going to be an individual that we would need. It would be five to 10 individuals.”

Matt Vanover, the board's spokesman, said his agency will request funding for investigators in the next year's budget. He added it will likely be a law firm that will be hired to investigate and prosecute certificate suspensions and revocations.

Essentially, the state board of education has been functioning on autopilot, leaving it up to local prosecutors to pursue criminal cases against teachers but doing little independently to police the state's teaching ranks. That approach doesn't make any sense, said Ted Thompson, executive director of the National Association to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Children.

“Prosecutors are government lawyers with limited resources. They have to balance cases and determine which ones to pursue, which ones to accept a plea agreement for and which ones to just drop because a trial might be traumatic for a child,” he said.

The teacher licensing board should be weighing the teacher's actual conduct and the related evidence -- not just if it happened to result in a certain type of criminal conviction, Thompson said.

Plea bargains and deferred sentences mean the outcome of criminal prosecutions of educators often do not result in convictions for offenses requiring automatic revocation.

It is important to remember that the burden of proof in a criminal case should be much higher than in determining whether someone is suitable to work in a particular profession, Thompson added. Criminal convictions require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. But the burden of proof is not as great for teachers losing their teaching certificate.

In most instances, the burden of proof for revoking a teaching certificate is a preponderance of the evidence - the same burden lawyers must prove in civil lawsuits.

In 2000, Christopher, Ill., teacher David Flowers was charged with multiple felony counts of aggravated criminal sexual abuse amid allegations that he groped female students. In a plea agreement, he pleaded guilty to 16 counts of misdemeanor battery, each involving a different child. Despite the convictions, no action was sought to suspend or revoke his teaching certificate.

“This man should absolutely not have a teaching license. We are talking about crimes against children. This man should have been tried on felony charges. But the victims were not adequately prepared before the trial. I wasn't the head prosecutor on the case and disagreed with the plea agreement,” said Rep. Careen Gordon, D-Morris, who was an assistant attorney general on the case in 2000.

That, of course, begs the question: What should be the standard for revoking or suspending a teaching certificate?

“The standard for a teacher losing their license ought to be whether the Department of Children and Family Services found the complaint against the teacher credible,” said Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, a psychologist who has specialized in treating victims of sexual abuse. “One thing we learned from the Catholic priest scandal is that even if a case is not criminally prosecuted, that does not mean a person's conduct is appropriate for their vocation.”

A case in point may be how the certification board handled the case of Kim Courtwright 20 years ago. Courtwright was charged with “immoral conduct” and “unprofessional conduct.”

Despite stacks of expressive letters exchanged between Scott and Courtwright, Scott's testimony and the fact that she had moved in with Courtwright for her entire senior year of high school, the certification board found Courtwright guilty of unprofessional conduct, but not immorality.

“I was really upset when they didn't convict him of immorality. It was like they were saying they didn't believe me. But my lawyer said I should feel good about it because he would lose his certificate. She told me to remember that the (certification) board was a jury of his peers,” Scott said.

In fact, the state's two major teacher unions appoint two-thirds of the members of the board, under state law.

Courtwright continues to deny a sexual relationship with Scott. He said he allowed a “troubled kid” to move in with him and his family with her parent's permission. Since losing his license, he has coached football at various Christian colleges across the Midwest. A teaching certificate is not required on a college level.

“The board voted that no sexual impropriety took place. But then they voted to suspend my certificate anyway because they thought I was an idiot for letting her come and live with me,” he said.

Ted Sanders presided over Courtwright's hearing 20 years ago. He said while he can't recall all of the legal reasoning for why the board ruled as it did, he is certain everyone on the board believed they were dealing with a sexual relationship.

“I really thought that case was going to be a turning point. Most teachers would never do anything like this or tolerate it. But the reality is even after the Courtwright case and even after the law was passed, not much has changed,” he said.

Gary Walker, who heads the ethics division at the Georgia Department of Education, said a charge of “unprofessional conduct” is a relatively routine way of approaching a suspected sexual relationship between a student and teacher, especially when there is not collaborating evidence like a pregnancy or a witness.

“In a ‘he-said, she-said' situation, it is sometimes hard to prove intercourse took place. But you can prove inappropriate relationship is taking place if an educator is spending too much time with a student away from school, sending love notes and that sort of thing. I tell educators you are not there to be a child's friend. You're there to be a role model,” Walker said.

In many ways, this is what sets other states apart from Illinois: a willingness to pursue cases that do not necessarily result in a criminal conviction but reflect badly on the profession.

In order to see just where Illinois ranks, Small Newspaper Group filed Freedom of Information requests with all 50 state departments of education and built a national database of suspensions and revocations.

To put this in perspective, errant teachers are 25 times more likely to have their license pulled in California or Georgia than they are in Illinois. In Florida or Texas, it is 10 times more likely to happen than in Illinois. And it is three times more likely in New York.

When confronted with this data, Scott, now a 40-year-old mother of four near Princeton, Ill., said, “I have been through so much since I came forward. Folks in the small town where I live still whisper about what I did rather than what was done to me. With the state of Illinois doing so little about this, I have to ask myself, 'Was it worth it?’”

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