Balancing the scales between the rights of teachers and the protection of children has become a delicate issue in the Utah Legislature.
Friday, the House Education Committee passed out a bill that would subject teachers to background checks, but not before amending it to make a criminal conviction, rather than an arrest, the trigger point. The bill was earlier passed by the Senate.The House committee was given a firsthand look at the complexity of the issues involved.
Gregory T. Ambus, a former teacher who is suing the State Office of Education for rescinding his certification, told the committee that SB17 is unconstitutional, a violation of privacy rights and "a vindictive reaction to his lawsuit."
However, Douglas Bates, legal counsel to the state office, said the Legislature has been trying for three years to draft an acceptable bill that would protect children against teachers who have committed sexual or drug crimes. SB17 is constitutional, he said, and the Ambus case is merely an example of the types of issues the legislators are trying to deal with as they attempt to forge laws that will keep children safe while in school - a place they are bound by law to be.
Ambus was arrested for allegedly selling drugs, but plea bargained with the legal system to implicate other dealers in exchange for having his record expunged.
"The state office lost the right to use the evidence against Mr. Ambus," said Bates. "It is as if the undercover operation and the drug deals never occurred."
Because of the expungement, there is no public hint that Ambus committed any crime. The state office took away his teaching accreditation, and he filed a $500,000 suit in 3rd District Court to have it re-instated.
SB17 does not consider the issue of expungement, but another bill expected to be studied by the 1991 Legislature does. The two issues - background checks and expungement - kept getting tangled up in Friday's discussion.
SB17 would allow private as well as public schools to conduct background checks on prospective teachers. Bates said that would help prevent "mobile molesters" from moving from district to district or state to state to continue abusing children.
In one case, he said, a teacher with a history of sexual abuse in Oregon was employed by a Salt Lake private school. When the abuse was discovered, the school had to buy out the man's contract to get rid of him.
Two teachers on the education panel, Joseph L. Hull, D-Weber/Davis, and Rep. Kim R. Burningham, R-Bountiful, told their fellow legislators there is another side to the coin. They said children or parents sometimes bring false, vindictive accusations against teachers and that using arrests as a floor for withholding certification would be unfair to teachers who were unjustly accused. Even if they are exonerated, the accusation itself can adversely color their record, they said.
Bates noted that the bill includes a due-process hearing to allow teachers to explain circumstances and speak in their own behalf.
The panel nevertheless amended the bill to eliminate arrests as a basis for action against certification, while retaining convictions as a standard.
Richard Townsend, director of the State Bureau of Criminal Identification, said the proposed fee of $10 per teacher would cover a check of Utah criminal records. However, if there is a call for a national search for each prospective teacher, the costs would rise by an additional $24. The fee issue can be addressed by rulemaking, Bates said.
The bill will now go to the House floor.