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SPECIAL REPORT: Students put at risk and the Protect Our Students Act won't help

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

How the State's system for sanctioning teachers leaves students at risk.



Lee County officials immediately suspended a sixth-grade teacher when allegations surfaced that he had sexually abused multiple children over his ten-year tenure. The teacher was indicted for statutory sex offenses, indecent liberties with a child, and sexual activity with a student.


A Wake County teacher was suspended after reportedly receiving and exchanging videos of naked children and videos of adult men having sex with children. Now he faces 10 felony counts of exploitation of a minor.


Shawn Hicks, a teacher in Harnett County, allegedly lured three students to his apartment where he sexually abused them. He now faces three charges of taking indecent liberties with minors.


All three of these teachers are still licensed to teach in North Carolina according to the Department of Public Instruction’s (DPI) website. They’re far from alone.


An investigation by Education First Alliance found serious flaws in the licensed teacher reporting system and the licensure revocation process used to ensure the safety of children in the state’s 115 school districts.


Education First Alliance gathered the databases of certified teachers and disciplined teachers using the DPI Licensure System, the Revoked License webpage on the DPI’s website and then cross-referenced the data with news reports of teachers who have been arrested and charged with sex crimes between 2021 - 2022. Additionally, journalists used open records requests to obtain communications between districts and the state.


Our investigation revealed:


  • Onslow County officials say they promptly notified DPI when a teacher was fired and surrendered his license voluntarily after he was arrested for secretly filming children undressing.


  • A Johnston County elementary school principal was charged with raping his neighbor in May 2022. He was immediately suspended, then he resigned. The teacher received a two-year suspension from the state.



  • A Union County teacher named Cory McDowell was arrested on June 9, 2021, for indecent liberties by a teacher with a student. DPI’s website states that the teacher was given a two-year suspension in May 2022 for inappropriate communication with a student. That teacher's suspension is up in April 2024,


  • A teacher named Mark Bradley Davis received a suspension from the Board for inappropriate behavior with a student, and for also failing to admit that his South Carolina professional license had been suspended. The reason? Posting "inappropriate" material on social media and using "inappropriate" language in the classroom - allegedly. He could be teaching again by August 2024.


  • Another teacher received just a "reprimand" for viewing, searching, and storing pornography on a school computer.


  • In 2021, two teachers received reprimands for inappropriate communication with students. While it's unknown what constitutes “inappropriate,” teachers’ licenses may be suspended or revoked for the charge according to DPI’s policy.



THE PROCESS

School Principals must report immediately to law enforcement when staff is suspected of things like assault, indecent liberties with a minor, or being under the influence of a controlled substance.


If a teacher is disciplined or fired for illegal, unethical, or inappropriate conduct, district officials have five days to inform Superintendent Catherine Truitt's office. Even if a teacher quits to avoid termination, this policy still applies.


It is ultimately up to Superintendent Truitt to investigate problem teachers, and then reprimand them for cause, or suspend or revoke professional licenses when infractions arise. Then, Truitt reports to the state school board chair monthly about disciplinary actions taken.


PROTECT OUR STUDENTS ACT

This week Superintendent Truitt presented to the House K12 Education Committee to encourage passage of the Protect Our Students Act. If passed, the bill would increase the penalties for teacher sex offenses as well as on school officials who fail to report misconduct.


Truitt told the committee that she reviews and signs off on license revocation cases for teachers. According to her report, there were 124 instances of teacher sexual misconduct that resulted in license suspensions, revocations, or voluntary surrenders between January 2016 and October 2022.


The Protect Our Students Act would up the penalties for teachers who are arrested for sex crimes against students, but it will do nothing to tighten the lax discipline standards in place at the State Board.


It is reckless to allow an elementary school teacher accused of forcibly raping a male neighbor to slip through the cracks and return to the classroom. There is a chance that this could happen with or without the passage of the new bill.


What about school districts like Onslow that report problem teachers to the DPI yet they still have active licenses a year later?


School districts and the public need to depend on the Superintendent's team to schedule disciplinary hearings with the Board, and then promptly update DPI's database with the status of a problem teacher's license. Especially true because district officials can face felony charges for late reporting under the new bill.

BACKGROUND CHECKS

Under current law, school boards can decide whether or not to perform background checks, and charter schools must the take lead of the school district in which they reside.


North Carolina's tracking system for problematic teachers received an "F" in a nationwide analysis by USA Today in 2016. A non-existent uniform background check system was the factor cited as most problematic.


A second finding was that North Carolina did an inadequate job of sharing misconduct information with other states.


In the past, lawmakers have proposed legislation requiring local school boards to conduct background checks on all applicants for teaching positions.


After the 2016 USA report, Republican senators proposed a bill to require background checks for teachers but died in committee. Another bill was introduced in 2021 to close the loophole, but it also went nowhere.


North Carolina’s broken teacher discipline and tracking system may let unfit teachers flee troubled pasts and bounce from district to district leaving victims in their wake. Superintendent Truitt said it best, "One violation is too many."


During this legislative session, legislators must prioritize protecting the State's most important resource: our children.


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