"Mobile molesters" - teachers who sexually abuse children in one school and then move on to another when they are caught - are a national problem, and the most effective solutions would be at that level, a Utah education official says.
Congressional action could "force states to take reasonable steps to keep predators out of the classroom," said Douglas Bates, legal/legislative counsel in the Utah State Office of Education.Bates, who also is legal counsel for a national clearinghouse that is compiling information on teachers who sexually abuse children, is working with others to develop congressional proposals that would close loopholes states can't close by themselves.
Congress must remove "privacy barriers" that tend to protect the guilty along with the innocent, he said. States then could identify and deal with pedophiles and share the information so offenders couldn't take their bad habits to a new location, Bates said.
"The Constitution doesn't give a person a right to continue to prey on children," he said. The special trust relationship children develop with teachers makes them particularly vulnerable to abuse. Although the number of teachers who perpetrate such abuses is extremely small, molestation is one of the most frequent reasons cited when teachers lose certification or are otherwise disciplined.
The struggle to balance the privacy rights of teachers against the need to protect children has been central to the issue. Teacher advocacy groups, including the National Education Association, want to assure that teachers are protected against a presumption of guilt until guilt is proven.
The second important action Congress could take would be to advance a national policy calling on states to investigate and prosecute school sex abuse cases involving teachers, Bates said.
The congressional initiatives are being pushed by the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. The association also supports the clearinghouse, which is operated by a private California company, Academ.
All of the states, with the exception of Michigan, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, Louisiana, Nevada and Hawaii, are affiliated with the network. Academ receives notification of teacher involvement in sex-abuse cases and makes that information available, upon request, to states considering applicants for teacher certification.
The clearinghouse helps when sexually abusive teachers are identified, but it doesn't solve the problem entirely, Bates said. Often, school or district officials are reluctant to deal with the adverse publicity raised by a sex charge, and they quietly fire an offender without taking the official steps to put that offender out of circulation. Legal "deals" like plea bargaining also allow some offenders to slip through the net undetected.
Companies that insure schools are becoming reluctant to protect them against liability involving sexual abuse, he said.
In Utah, district superintendents are charged with reporting sex abuse cases to the state office, but there is no penalty for failure to do so, Bates said.
Reluctance all up and down the line to publicize sex abuse cases involving teachers contributes to what Bates calls the "pass-the-trash syndrome. They allow the teacher to resign with a so-so recommendation and move on to another district."