Society trusts its children to teachers.
When teachers breach that trust by physically, sexually or psychologically abusing the children in their care, education system officials say they act swiftly to get them out of the classroom - and hopefully to keep them from getting into another.The number of Utah teachers who have been disciplined in the past two years has increased, primarily due to better reporting and screening processes, said Roger Mouritsen, coordinator of certification and personnel development in the state Office of Education.
"We can't afford to have a person in the classroom who may hurt children," he said.
During the fiscal year ending July 1, 1988, the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission heard eight cases of alleged child abuse involving teachers. To date this year, the commission has dealt with almost 20 cases - more than twice as many for the comparable period.
Even so, with more than 20,000 teachers in Utah's system, the number of problem teachers is very small, Mouritsen said.
"It's my feeling that we have a very moral group of teachers. The numbers (of offending teachers) are minuscule in comparison to the total teaching force."
Teachers, like all other Americans, reflect societal attitudes and problems, he said. But because society tends to place high expectations on teachers' behavior, and also because teachers frequently choose their profession for altruistic reasons, bad behavior involving children is not tolerated in the profession.
Complaints against teachers most often come at the district level, although Mourit-sen said he "combs the newspaper every day." If a name involved in any crime is found among the state's certified teacher lists, he immediately contacts the district in which the teacher is employed.
The 1989 Legislature passed a bill that expands the ability of educators to get information regarding teachers involved in criminal activity. The new law requires law enforcement agencies to contact the state Office of Education if a teacher is arrested.
"It's just being implemented," Mouritsen said, so it is too soon to tell how it may affect the number of teachers the commission deals with.
Mouritsen said there still are some problems to be worked out, including the sealing of records for individuals who cooperate in police investigations. The sealing allows it to appear the individual was never involved in a crime. If the individual is a teacher, the state office may have no recourse against his or her license, he said.
Teachers' rights to privacy have had to be balanced against the need to protect children. Some Utah districts do fingerprint and crime checks before hiring a teacher.
Throughout the country, education systems also have closed their ranks to prevent problem teachers from moving from one state to another.
For instance, a teacher who lost certification in Utah went to Montana and was hired by the public education system there. A check of Utah's records, by a simple telephone call, disclosed that the teacher was not in good standing and "it was the end of his career in Montana," Mouritsen said.
Private schools, particularly very small ones, may not be as particular in checking certification, he said. A teacher who had been driven out of two other states for seducing adolescents into homosexual activities reportedly ended up in a private Utah school until his previous activities became known.
The effort to protect children, unfortunately, has had some negative effects on teacher/student relationships, he said. Some districts have passed "no touch" policies that inhibit a teacher's ability to be as warm and responsive to children, particularly very young pupils, as they would like to be.
Teachers are warned to stay away from compromising situations, such as being alone with a student, touching any part of the body that could be interpreted as a sexual advance or to repeat or listen to questionable jokes.
Today's children are more sophisticated and aware of sexual and physical abuse, Mouritsen said. Children may misunderstand a teacher's touches, or situations may arise in which a student accuses a teacher he or she dislikes.
The Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission can discipline teachers in several ways:
-Issue a warning, usually by letter, specifying that a particular conduct is considered unprofessional.
-Issue a reprimand, also by letter, with the action being recorded on all state certification records.
- Suspend certification for a time, with a rehearing required to reinstitute the certificate.
-Revoke certification, with notice sent to all other states.
The State Board of Education must endorse all commission actions.