By Victor Skinner
SEATTLE -- At Port Townsend High School near Seattle, basketball coach Randy Sheriff allegedly used his influence, and occasionally drugs and alcohol, to manipulate his star player – a 15-year-old girl – into a sexual relationship in the late 1980s.
Many school employees suspected that something was wrong, particularly when Sheriff included the girl on an overseas trip with a men’s basketball team. A principal eventually told Sheriff to keep his distance and the girl soon left the school, according to a 2003 investigation by the Seattle Times.
But the girl’s coach at her new school soon noticed her continued relationship with Sheriff and confronted her about it. The victim admitted the inappropriate relationship, but the new coach didn’t report the crime, according to the Times. The girl eventually sued Port Townsend schools and Sheriff, and Sheriff was dismissed from his job. Both the school district and Sheriff settled the cases.
That type of situation should have ended Sheriff’s career in education. But other schools were left in the dark.
Sheriff was later hired by another Seattle-area high school, where he targeted another standout female basketball player. It took about 20 parents lodging complaints about his behavior before he was again fired, but again without facing criminal charges, according to the Seattle Times.
“They reached an agreement with the coach and his union: He would quit, and the district would drop its investigation and not disclose his misconduct to potential employers,” according to Seattle Times.
It took another four years before authorities revoked Sheriff’s teaching license, although he continued to coach in private schools until parents learned of his past and forced him out. Sheriff eventually pursued a career as a motivational speaker.
The public is learning that fear, ignorance and a culture of silence have allowed educators to sexually abuse children for years, and the use of modern communication devices may be increasing the frequency of abuse.
That’s bad enough.
But now it’s becoming obvious many school administrators and teacher union officials have known about countless instances of abuse and conspired to cover them up. That allowed an untold number of molesting teachers to quietly leave one school district to repeat their crimes in another.
The American Federation of Teachers, however, disputes any suggestion it would be involved in trying to help cover up such activity. "We have a zero tolerance policy for sexual misconduct," Marcus Mrowka, manager of media affairs, told EAGnews.
Dozens of lawsuits filed by parents of children who were targeted by “mobile molesters” – as they’re nicknamed – are pending against school districts across the country, because administrators failed to warn other districts about hiring known predators.
To add insult to injury, the nation’s most powerful teacher unions, which hold considerable political sway, have used their power to kill legislative efforts in several states to address educator sexual abuse of students.
School administrators have several motives for quietly sweeping child abuse cases under the rug.
Many are obviously afraid of tarnishing their professional reputations, and the reputations of their schools and teachers, by acknowledging the presence of sexual predators.
They’re also pressured by practical considerations.
In many states it can take several years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, to fire tenured teachers, even known sexual offenders. That’s due to protections stipulated in union contracts and state tenure laws.
Most schools have been struggling to cover basic operational expenses in recent years, and don’t want to waste scarce tax dollars paying attorneys, suspended teachers and substitutes to cover for those teachers.
And teacher union officials appear to have been willing on many occasions to work with administrators to cover up sexual abuse. They sometimes arrange secret deals that allow districts to obtain resignations from abusive teachers in exchange for letters of recommendation for further employment in the education field.
“I think there are a lot of superintendents who don’t have the courage to stand up to the unions and (instead) negotiate these ‘pass the trash’ deals. They take the easy way out, instead of doing the right thing,” Indiana University Northwest professor Charles Hobson, author of a new book “Passing the Trash: A Parent’s Guide to Combat Sexual Abuse/Harassment of Their Children in School,” told EAGnews.
“The teachers union in most cases is the first posse that runs to the defense of the predator,” according to Terri Miller, executive director of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation (S.E.S.A.M.E.) – an organization dedicated to fighting educator sexual misconduct. “Essentially, it’s administrators and teachers unions who are usually the people … aiding and abetting child molesters in our schools.”
The Matthew Lang case is a perfect example.
Lang was a high school band director at O’Fallon High School in Illinois who engaged in illegal sexual contact with a student. He resigned from O’Fallon in 2007 in a union-negotiated arrangement that allowed him to regain employment at nearby Alton High School, where he was later convicted of molesting another girl and sentenced to six years in prison, according to a 2010 report in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
The mother of the victim at Alton High School sued Lang, the O’Fallon school district and the teachers union for failing to warn Alton officials about Lang’s behavior, and eventually settled out of court. But the ugly facts of the case illustrate how union officials allegedly conspired to hide the misdeeds.
A memo from the local union president to the O’Fallon school board, obtained by EAGnews through a public information request, illustrated how the secret deal was arranged:
“Matt Lang is currently seeking employment in other districts. In light of this information, we are asking that all information concerning the request for his resignation not be placed in his file. School districts may contact (O’Fallon) for recommendation on the performance of Matt Lang. The (union) would like the administration to provide a favorable recommendation on his behalf.”
And that’s exactly what administrators did.
“It is with great pleasure that I write this letter of recommendation for Matthew Lang,” O’Fallon High School Principal Stephen Dirnbeck wrote. “Matt is an outstanding instructor of instrumental music. I wholeheartedly recommend him for any position he may seek in the music education field.”
Another example is former Illinois teacher Jon White, who was sentenced to 48 years in prison in 2008 after he abused girls in the Urbana school district, the News-Gazette in central Illinois reported.
White previously worked for the McLean County Unit District No. 5, where he was twice suspended for inappropriate sexual conduct – once for viewing pornography on a school computer and another time for making sexually suggestive comments to a fifth-grader. There is no record of White being fired, but he left the McLean district to join the Urbana district in 2005.
When White applied for the job in Urbana, he provided a positive letter of recommendation from McLean County that made no mention of prior transgressions, despite clear evidence that McLean officials understood the risk he posed to students.
A McLean assistant principal sent the following email to a local union official, following White’s arrest at Urbana:
“I don’t know the specific charges, but it appears to be much worse than the issues he faced here. I’m glad we took the steps we did to get him out of the district. I believe it was you who said that he was on the path to further problems.”
Unions go the extra mile to protect abusers
Experts generally acknowledge that teacher unions have played a key role in keeping an alarming number of sexual abusers in the classroom.
“Because of the political action committees of unions and the power they wield, I think in a lot of instances the prosecutors are hesitant” to file criminal charges against an accused teacher, Hobson said. “I think a lot of times it has to do with prosecutors being unwilling to take that step, and the public not being aware of these issues and not putting pressure on the prosecutor to take the next step.”
In some states unions use the arbitration process to defend teachers accused of sexual abuse, even when administrators are willing to fire them. The United Federation of Teachers, which represents K-12 teachers in New York City, is among the most effective at helping these teachers skirt the system.
The New York Daily News last year tracked 16 teachers who were accused of sexually abusing students. City education officials tried to fire them, but UFT officials insisted on taking their cases to arbitration.
Fourteen of the teachers were reinstated to the classroom. Two others were assigned “desk duty.” None were fired.
One of those cases involved high school teacher Norman Siegel, who was accused of pressing his genitalia against a female student’s leg. An arbitrator ruled the charge likely was true, but only issued Siegel a 45-day unpaid suspension.
Then there’s the case of gym and health teacher Willie Laraque, who was accused of bending a male student over a desk, leaning in to him and saying, “I’ll show you what is gay.” Laraque is reportedly back in the classroom after paying a $10,000 fine.
How does this type of thing happen? Under terms of collective bargaining, arbitrators are jointly named by city education officials and union officials and answer to each side. Union officials clearly expect to see their share of victories, regardless of the details.
A 2012 editorial in the Daily News blasted this system:
“Why would arbitrators throw kids to the wolves?” the newspaper wrote. “Because they make a living deciding such cases – and because they are hired by joint agreement of the Education Department and the (teachers union). They well know that if they toss teachers out of work, the union will do the same to them.”
New York City union leaders aren’t the only ones who take pride in squashing sexual complaints made against their members.
Kansas City Federation of Teachers President Andrea Flinders recently wrote that 34 of 34 complaints of sexual abuse by district educators were deemed “unsubstantiated,” thanks to the union’s work.
Flinders “considers that a victory for teachers,” KSHB.com reported.
If teachers are accused of misdeeds, “We will send a legal representative with the teacher so they are not alone during the interview,” Flinders said. “We are here to protect the rights of our teachers.”
“The bottom line unfortunately for our children is the system is designed to protect the predators over our students,” according to S.E.S.A.M.E. executive director Miller.
Keeping good laws off the books
In 2012 alone, union representatives lobbied against proposed legislation in New York, California, Pennsylvania and other states designed to protect students from sexual predators.
“Usually when you read about any legislation regarding educator sexual misconduct … it’s the teachers unions who are up-front and center as the only opposition,” said Miller, who has worked with lawmakers in several states in recent years to craft bills targeting child predators in schools.
Moments after Pennsylvania mother Hope Egli testified last year before state lawmakers about how her daughter was sexually targeted by a teacher, a union official tried to convince the same lawmakers that new legislation was not necessary.
“To ensure fitness for employment and prevent such perpetrators from gaining employment, Pennsylvania already has in place strong laws and regulations, many of which are in the Public School Code, which provide substantial protections,” Richard Burridge, legal field manager for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, testified.
Democratic state Sen. Anthony Williams, the sponsor of the legislation, had a response waiting for Burridge.
“Headline: (the Pennsylvania State Education Association) defends child molesters,” Williams told the union official. “That’s the sum and substance of what your documents will reveal when we get to them about how you defended people who did this.”
Williams’ legislation, known as the “Passing the Trash” bill, would require school districts to investigate why job applicants left previous positions in other schools, and would force previous employers to come clean about all accusations a teacher may have faced.
The legislation failed to pass in 2012, but has been reintroduced this year.
Last year New York City school officials pressed state lawmakers to pass legislation that would give final authority to fire teachers accused of sexual misconduct to the city’s schools chancellor, but the United Federation of Teachers effectively shelved the proposal with the help of friendly lawmakers.
New York Post columnist Andrea Peyser placed the blame directly on the union.
“Teachers are not swiftly fired when they are caught with their pants down,” she wrote. “Instead the United Federation of Teachers backs an arbitration system, run by ninnies, that does back flips to prevent teachers from getting ousted.”
The New York Daily News also chimed in on the issue:
“That’s how it works in New York, where the unions rule and the right of teachers to keep their jobs trumps the safety of kids in their charge.”
In California, Democratic state Sen. Alex Padilla introduced legislation last year to make it easier to fire teachers who commit sexual, physical or drug-related acts with students.
LA Weekly pointed out that the Los Angeles school district paid Mark Berndt – an elementary teacher accused of lewd actions with dozens of his students - $40,000 to quit, and why a more expedited termination process is necessary.
The $40,000 “was far less money than LAUSD would have shelled out for attorneys and Berndt’s ongoing salary (while suspended) – only to perhaps see him reinstated by California’s unusually powerful, three-person Commission on Professional Competence, controlled by two teachers-union appointees who are increasingly criticized for not acting on behalf of students.”
Despite the obvious need for the legislation, Padilla’s bill never made it out of the state Assembly Education Committee, because numerous lawmakers beholden to the California Teachers Association prevented it from moving forward.
“Anyone who wonders why a school district can’t dismiss a teacher accused of molesting kids might want to direct that question to the California Teachers Association,” the Los Angeles Daily News wrote in response to the bill’s defeat. “Or ask the California Federation of Teachers, or United Teachers Los Angeles, or the handful of cowardly legislators who let Senate Bill 1530 die last week in committee.”
Tomorrow: Experts say there are things we can all do to help stop teachers from sexually abusing students.
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Front page image credit: AP.