Online database tracks sanctioned teachers

Most of them are cases parents never heard of.
Pinellas Park Elementary: A third-grade teacher who reportedly doesn't notice his students engaged in oral sex.
Walsingham Elementary in Largo: A kindergarten teacher who's investigated for slamming a door on a girl's hand so hard it severs a tendon.
Young Middle Magnet in Tampa: A teacher who pleads no contest to voyeurism after watching a woman emerge from a shower.

It goes without saying that teacher misconduct is the exception to the rule. But a new state Web site that contains these cases and 1,200 others suggests it happens more often than parents think.

Unveiled in August, the Department of Education's online database lists teachers statewide whose teaching certificates were sanctioned after they engaged in allegedly criminal and/or unethical behavior, either on or off campus.

To date, about 170 of them are from the Tampa Bay area. And the vast majority do not evoke the sex scandals that have been serialized in recent headlines.

Drugs. DUIs. Bar fights. Lying. Cheating. Stealing. Identity theft. Welfare fraud.

The list goes on. And it's growing.

• • •

Cross Bayou Elementary. April 2004.

According to state records, kindergarten teacher Donna Foster is investigated for grabbing a 5-year-old so hard he has severe bruising on his arms for several days.

Three weeks later, she resigns in lieu of suspension.

From 1994 to 2004, administrators investigated Foster for at least seven complaints of excessive force, the records say. In at least three cases, they determined the complaints were substantiated.

Myfloridateacher.com listed about 300 cases when it was launched. But hundreds have been added since then, and heaps more are on their way.

The reason: The Department of Education is slowly including thousands of older cases, many involving teachers still in classrooms. More than 1,300 cases are in the pipeline, either being investigated by the state or awaiting final action. And every year, the state reviews 3,500 to 4,000 new complaints, many of which will become new cases.

The process isn't new. But it's more public than ever.

Just last week, the Education Practices Commission — a 17-member panel that typically meets every month to make final decisions involving teacher misconduct — took action on 90 cases. Seventeen were from the Tampa Bay area.

Two involved shoplifting. Four involved marijuana. One involved flirting with a 16-year-old.

One teacher reportedly brought a gun to school twice. Another had been charged with two DUIs and aggravated assault, the complaint alleges.

"Respondent physically assaulted her boyfriend by grabbing him by the throat and threatening to kill him," it says.

In the past, many of those records would have gathered dust, out of sight and out of mind to parents even though they were public.

Now, they're three clicks away.

Every case includes a summary of allegations and sanctions, which range from a letter of reprimand to permanent revocation of a teaching certificate. In many cases, teachers convicted of crimes are allowed to continue teaching.

The St. Petersburg Times reviewed every local case posted so far.

Some are more than a decade old, but the vast majority involve sanctions handed down since 2006.

Debra Lafave is here. So are other sex-tinged cases that never made the news.

One involves a female teacher at Dixie Hollins High in Pinellas who was accused of having a sexual relationship with an 18-year-old male student in 2003. Another deals with a teacher at Sickles High in Tampa who reportedly told his class details about his first sexual encounter and asked a female student what color her nipples were.

"When student said she didn't know, Respondent told her to go check and report back to him," the records say.

• • •

Dunedin High: An assistant principal is accused of coercing teachers into signing evaluations they know contain false information.

Tarpon Springs High: A guidance counselor is investigated for having a student's transcript altered so his GPA will be high enough to play football.

Chamberlain High: A teacher reportedly takes school funds for his personal use and makes threatening statements to a bookkeeper who questions him.

• • •

There is no evidence to suggest teacher misconduct is on the rise. Or that teachers engage in criminal and/or unethical behavior more often than other professionals.

But by law and by tradition, teachers are held to a higher standard. And when they do get into trouble, it clashes with the prevailing image: Upstanding. Underpaid. Unsung.

"In any field, you have misconduct," said Florida PTA president Lenelle Cruse, who heard about the state's Web site but has not looked at it. "But overall, we have fantastic teachers. We support our teachers 100 percent."

The take from Jade Moore, head of the Pinellas teachers union: Keep it in perspective.

The local cases represent a tiny fraction of the nearly 29,000 teachers working in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. In the past three years, about 10,000 teachers have been employed in Pinellas.

"If you said there are 100 cases out there involving gross misconduct and we only had 1,000 teachers, I'd say it's a crisis," Moore said. "But if 9,900 of them have done nothing wrong, and 100 of them have, that's pretty good odds."

On the other hand, the DOE database does not include disciplinary actions at the school and district level. And some cases in the database note that teachers were reprimanded multiple times at the local level before their cases were referred to the state.

Taken as a whole, the cases raise hard questions.

Is scrutiny and punishment consistent from school to school? From district to district?

Should there be an easy way for parents to find out even more about teachers than what's on the state Web site?

Why, in some cases, are the offending teachers not fired?

In Pinellas, 23 of 57 teachers who were sanctioned and listed on the Web site are still teaching in the district. In Hillsborough, it's 26 of 74. It's unclear how many of the rest landed teaching jobs elsewhere.

A bill breezing through the Legislature would curb teacher misconduct by tightening the standards for hiring, screening and disciplining teachers. It would also require districts to report even suspicions of misconduct involving students.

On the flip side, fairness questions remain.

Is it always right to post the punishment of a teacher who makes a single mistake? What if the teacher stumbles off campus, but is stellar in the classroom?

Should every scarlet letter be forever?

"Do I want a really good teacher who's made one mistake crucified?" said Carol Conaway, past president of the Pinellas County Council of PTAs. "No. But if it's a repeated mistake, you can't look the other way.

"There's the old argument that what you do on your own time is your own thing," she continued. "But people in certain professions, I think, have to be above reproach."

• • •

Pinellas Park Elementary. March 2003.

According to state records, a male student in Dale Snyder's third-grade classroom forced a female student to perform oral sex on him under a desk. At least nine other students watched.

Snyder failed to properly supervise his class, the state complaint alleges, because he was playing computer games.

• • •

Teacher sex scandals get all the attention. And for good reason.

In an exhaustive and award-winning newspaper series last fall, the Associated Press reported finding more than 2,500 cases of sexual misconduct involving teachers in the past five years, according to disciplinary records from all 50 states.

"The findings draw obvious comparisons to sex abuse scandals in other institutions, among them the Roman Catholic Church," the AP wrote. "Clergy abuse is part of the national consciousness after a string of highly publicized cases. But until now, there's been little sense of the extent of educator abuse."

The broader picture of teacher misconduct remains unclear.

Few states have put such information online. Stories about it are rare. Experts are hard to come by.

"It's literally not as sexy," said Bart Zabin, principal investigator for the New York Department of Education office that deals with teacher misconduct.

Obviously, it is news when a Tampa high school teacher is charged with having sex with a 17-year-old in a motel shower. But some argue the spotlight should be put on other areas of teacher misconduct, too.

"While everybody is trying to shake the pedophile out of the bushes, and rightly so," Zabin said, "there may be lots of other educators who are not looking to molest children, but pose a threat."

"There are bullies, bigots, drunks and drug addicts and others who simply do not possess the values that allow them to serve as role models in guiding and instructing our children," he said.

Times staff writer Jeffrey S. Solochek and researchers Caryn Baird and John Martin contributed to this report. Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873. Donna Winchester can be reached at winchester@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8413.

On the Web

To view the online database, go to myfloridateacher.com and click on "Search Disciplinary Actions Against Educator Licenses."

Online database tracks sanctioned teachers 04/26/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 30, 2008 9:03pm]

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