The News Journal | Jessica Bies
A new bill would let the state Education Department immediately suspend educators' licenses if they are arrested or indicted by a grand jury for a violent felony, or where there is a clear and immediate danger to student safety or welfare.
Currently, the education department cannot take away teachers' licenses unless they are fired or they resign/retire after official notice of allegations of a sexual offense against a child.
That can be a lengthy process that involves hearings and appeals, especially if the teacher hasn't been convicted of a crime yet. In the meantime, those educators are still in the classroom, said Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, which leaves students in danger.
"This way, we can move a little quicker," said Jaques, who is one of the bill's sponsors and chair of the House Education Committee. Though first introduced Thursday, he fully expects the bill to get approved by the end of the month, before the legislative session ends.
Upon request, the state Education Department provided four real-life examples of educators whose licenses have not been suspended, despite serious allegations of misconduct. For legal reasons, DOE could not provide the educators' names:
A male educator has been accused three separate times by three female elementary students of touching their thighs and making sexually inappropriate comments. No criminal charges have ever been brought and he has not been fired. After the third incident, he resigned but then was hired at another school in Delaware and is currently teaching. Under the current law, the state has no grounds to conduct an investigation or revoke his license.
One educator was accused of not reporting child abuse as required by law. The educator took a disability pension and was still technically employed by the school district, so the state didn't have jurisdiction and couldn't legally investigate.
A principal who stole money from a parent-teacher association took a plea deal and was put on probation; thus no action was taken with regard to his/her licensure.
An educator was charged with a felony for pushing an autistic student and causing him physical injury. The educator’s license remains fully effective and he/she could take a new job at another school despite the charges being investigated.
The new legislation is backed by the Delaware State Education Association, Delaware Department of Justice and the Beau Biden Foundation for the Protection of Children, among other organizations.
Under the new bill, the education department could temporarily suspend educators' licenses or certificates for up to 60 days, pending an investigation and hearing. If it's determined an educator is a danger to students, their license will remain suspended until disciplinary action is taken — the education department itself can't fire teachers; that's up to the board of whatever school district the teachers work for.
Alternatively, if the educator is found not guilty of the underlying criminal charges, they can request that their license is reinstated.
Because personnel records are confidential and not all educators are charged with felonies, many such cases escape public notice. But in 2014, a 16-year-old Smyrna High School student, who had an ongoing sexual relationship with a teacher, filed a lawsuit against him and the school district.
The suit blamed 38-year-old Donovan J. Garvin and the Smyrna district for acts of sexual assault and battery that were committed against the student, identified by the pseudonym "Jane Doe."
The suit further alleged the district had "actual or constructive notice of prior misconduct by Garvin, which endangered students and subjected them to sexual abuse. The case was settled in May 2015, before it went to trial.
Attorney Raeann Warner, who represented the girl, has said it was unfortunate Garvin used his position to prey on a vulnerable student.
"What is more troubling is that the suit alleges that other teachers warned Garvin to stay away from plaintiff, apparently recognizing the inappropriateness of their relationship," Warner said in 2014.
Garvin was arrested in 2013 following an investigation that started after the discovery of a cellphone containing communication between him and the girl. The relationship apparently began in 2012 when the girl, then 15, was a sophomore. She was a student of Garvin's the previous school year.
According to the 13-page lawsuit, the two had sex on at least 10 occasions. Some of the assaults occurred in Garvin's classroom, according to the victim's attorney.
Garvin was charged with 10 counts of first-degree sexual abuse of a child by a person of trust and one count of sexual solicitation of a child to engage in prohibited acts. He pleaded guilty to a single count of child abuse and was sentenced to 13 years in prison and 2½ years of probation. He must also register as a sex offender and is prohibited from having contact with minors, except for his own children.
During Garvin's sentencing, Warner said a deputy attorney general informed the court that Garvin was let go by other school districts for allegations of inappropriate sexual contact with students. His license was never revoked, which allowed him to secure employment elsewhere.
Warner could not comment on the case specifically, but on Monday did say: "In general, this bill appears to be intended to give the department more information and flexibility and power to act to protect children, which is a great thing."
The new bill also makes it easier for the state education department to take action against teachers who are fired but not formally charged, said Shelley Meadowcroft, director of public relations for the Delaware State Education Association.
If, after being investigated, a teacher or paraprofessional isn't found guilty, the education department can still issue a "non-disciplinary letter of concern" outlining the bad behavior. If an educator receives three letters of the concern, the education department can choose to suspend, limit or revoke their license.
Meadowcroft said that creates the ability for the education department to track a teacher's behavior, even if they switch school districts multiple times.
"Not all school districts talk," she said, which makes it difficult for administrators to know if an educator has a history of misconduct.
With the new bill in place, "No matter where you are, they can still go in and say no, you're done, three strikes, you're out," Meadowcroft said. "It gets them out of the school immediately, which is a good thing."
Not only that, but all final orders issued by either the secretary of education or the Professional Standards Board would be considered public documents, subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
That's notable because, as mentioned above, personnel decisions are often considered confidential, and it can be difficult to determine why a teacher was fired or suspended. Most of the cases the Department of Education investigates involve physical aggression or sexual misconduct, officials told the News Journal in 2016.
USA Today has also investigated teachers who sexually abuse students, and has found many of them continue to work with children. Officials put children in harm’s way by covering up evidence of abuse, keeping allegations secret and making it easy for abusive teachers to find jobs elsewhere, the investigation found.
Joshua Alcorn, chief engagement officer at the Beau Biden Foundation, compared the phenomenon to what happened in the Catholic Church. Priests were often moved to different parishes when allegations of sexual abuse began to surface, allowing them access to new victims.
Alcorn said the Beau Biden Foundation wants to make sure educators accused of serious crimes aren't allowed to continue teaching.
“We’re interested in making sure predators don’t have easy access to children and institutions have a way to protect the children in their care from predators," he said.
"Strengthening child protection laws is one of the main tenants of the foundation.”