By Steve Hunley

Steve Reilly of USA Today had a story in the Gannett newspapers in Tennessee that every parent and grandparent ought to read.  Apparently Reilly researched his article for an entire year and discovered “that education 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.”  USA Today touted the story as “the most comprehensive national review of teacher discipline to date” and Reilly has reviewed “thousands of court filings and employment records and surveyed state education officials to determine how teachers who engage in misconduct remain in the education system.”  I have to take my hat off to Steve Reilly, he’s done a whiz-bang job of ferretting out facts every family needs to know.  Reilly gives clear and specific examples of teachers who either never should have been hired to work with children or who should have been fired immediately after an initial incident.

Steve Reilly’s article is strong stuff; Reilly concludes, “As a result (of the USA Today investigation), schoolchildren across the nation continue to be beaten, raped and harassed by their teachers while government officials at every level stand by and do nothing.”

Reilly starts off by providing the particulars about Kip McFarlin, who was a coach at the Orangefield High School.  There were several serious complaints from students about McFarlin’s inappropriate behavior.  After the complaints from six students were investigated, it was discovered McFarlin had been using “sexually suggestive language” and told one student he “would date her if he were younger.”  McFarlin, to put it mildly, was never reported to law enforcement agencies nor was he fired and Reilly notes officials “hid his behavior from state regulators, parents and coaches.”  Orangefield school officials merely wanted rid of McFarlin and the local school district attorney informed the school superintendent, “This incident does not have to end McFarlan’s (sic) career.”  She recommended McFarlin be allowed a “graceful exit.”  McFarlin found another teaching job at a school where no one knew about his past problems and inappropriate behavior with students at Orangefield.  McFarlin later had sex with one of his students, a 16 year-old girl.

Many of these cases are in flagrant violation of a new federal law which forbids school systems from signing secrecy agreements with teachers who are suspected of crimes involving students, a practice Reilly points out that is referred to as “passing the trash.”  Passing the trash, Steve Reilly writes, involves the secret contracts that “hide details of sexual behavior and sometimes pay teachers to quit their jobs quietly.”  Naturally that practice allows these folks to simply go to another school system and find another teaching job with what appears to be a clean record.  Reilly notes this practice is especially dangerous for private schools and those organizations designed to serve youngsters as they are responsible for doing their own background checks and almost never have access to any information relating to teachers who were disciplined for truly inappropriate behavior.

Tennessee has had it’s own problems and the State Board of Education was moved by another report by USA Today and the Nashville Tennessean.  Previously Tennessee had received a failing grade for its systems of background checks.  Prior to the State Board’s actions, Tennessee schools had hired some teachers who had had their teaching licenses revoked in other states.  The case of James Aaron Swafford was a motivating factor in moving the State Board of Education to action.  Swafford had been teaching in North Carolina and his teaching license had been revoked after he was discovered writing love letters to a sixteen-year-old student.  Swafford won an appeal overturning the decision and his lawyer noted at least 20 other examples where the state board had allowed teachers who had committed similar offenses with children “to be reinstated or apply for reinstatement, after suspensions and training or a combination.”  Swafford went on to teach at a Warren County high school and was soon writing love letters to yet another teen-aged girl.  Swafford also sent the 17-year-old girl underwear.  Swafford landed a teaching job at South-Doyle High School and was finally fired after striking a student-athlete.

Swafford’s story was not unusual.  Steve Reilly’s USA Today story noted: “Although abusive teachers make up only a fraction of 1% of the nation’s teaching corps, USA TODAY found dozens of teachers who lost one job after being accused of abusive behavior and had no trouble getting hired somewhere else.”

The USA Today investigation revealed many school systems prefer “passing the trash” rather than dealing with lawsuits and fighting with the teachers’ unions who almost always fight any termination hearing.  Yet it isn’t easier for the students.

Congress has required states to pass laws that forbid “passing the trash,” but many states have been mighty slow to comply with the federal law.  Thus far, according to Steve Reilly’s article, only Connecticut and Texas have followed through, while Missouri, Pennsylvania and Oregon already had laws on the books to prevent confidentiality agreements in such cases.  Not surprisingly, many state legislatures don’t want to provoke a fight with the teachers’ unions, some of whom have fought efforts to fix the problem.  Jan Hochadel, head of a teacher union in Connecticut, complained, “This will limit the ability of employees and employers from negotiating separation agreements and could potentially result in a flood of teacher termination hearings.”  Hochadel’s complaints were ignored and the Connecticut legislature passed the measure with but a single dissenting vote.  Did you notice Ms. Hochadel’s statement never mentioned concern for protecting students?  It was no mere omission.  As I have said before, kids don’t pay union dues and teachers’ unions protect the good, the bad, and the downright terrible without making any particular distinction between those classes of teachers.

While our own legislators are opining about raising the gasoline tax, it seems to me a more worthy cause would be tightening Tennessee’s laws to protect our children from predators lurking in our schools.  To be fair, legislators ought to write a law to make it a serious offense to falsely accuse any teacher of a crime or inappropriate behavior.  Obviously, our own teachers’ unions will complain, wring their hands and cry if the legislature tightens the law, but we also have to comply with the edict of Congress.  The legislature needs to eliminate the practice of predators floating from one school system to another, allowing them to prey on another set of youngsters.  Not only has Congress required it, protecting our children  demands it.