MESA TRIES TO TURN IT AROUND

It was the worst time in her career as an educator, school administrator Janice Ramirez says. She didn't want to believe one of her best teachers would run off with a teenage student.

But that's what happened. Ramirez was the principal of Fremont Junior High. Ken Lamberton had earned honors as Mesa Unified School District's educator of the year.

But during the summer of 1986, the married father of three ran off with 14-year-old Kelly Gregan on a misbegotten jaunt that ended two weeks later on a street in Aspen, Colorado.

Lamberton's folly landed him in prison for 12 years under Arizona's strict Dangerous Crimes Against Children laws. In the aftermath of the nationally publicized case, Ramirez wondered "if I had missed seeing something amiss with Ken. But he was a superior teacher with a superior record and nothing in his past." It seemed as if one teacher after another during that time made news of the worst kind: There was Lamberton; there was a sex-for-grades scandal; a child-molesting case. One young woman taped a telephone conversation in which a teacher admitted having had sex with her when she was a high school student.

The spate of cases made people wonder aloud what they put in the water out there in the East Valley. The Mesa school district's shame was profound.

Those familiar with the Lamberton case agree it would have been extremely difficult, maybe impossible, to have predicted his criminal lapse in judgment. But other Mesa teachers guilty of sexual activities with children in the mid-1980s had troubling backgrounds that became painfully obvious to district supervisors only after the damage was done.

One of Janice Ramirez's assignments when the district promoted her to assistant superintendent of personnel in 1988 was to improve--quickly--the system of doing background checks on prospective employees. It promised to be an uphill struggle in Arizona's fastest-growing school district, which now employs 3,300 teachers.

"This is not meant as a criticism of anyone, but it used to be that we believed what people put on their applications," she tells New Times. "But people do lie, and the more I got into it, the more I was concerned. The things I've become aware of. Whew! The expunged records, the plea bargains. The lack of a public record on an individual."
Now, almost five years into the job, Ramirez says, "I think we're a little more realistic than before and that means tougher and more diligent. We want to be fair to people, but any doubts raised at all are cause for concern. We think we are doing better."

By several accounts, Mesa--whose sex scandals at the police department and in the schools long have been an embarrassment to the community--is making positive strides.

"We've gone through some tough times and made some mistakes, but we want to keep on improving," she says. "Hey, I've got an eighth-grader in school here. This is a very personal thing for me."
These days, Ramirez and three other school administrators make their own background calls about a prospective employee. And they demand to speak with an applicant's past supervisor, not a clerk who doesn't know the applicant personally.

Mesa doesn't rely on the state of Arizona's limited fingerprint checks to determine an applicant's past criminal history. It employs a private local firm, Arizona Investigations, to find out as much as it legally can about an applicant.

Ramirez says she is well-aware "more bad guys" might slip through the cracks into the Mesa school system at any time. Or, she adds, "we could find out that we already have someone in our midst that shouldn't be there. But we're doing our best not to have that happen." And when someone telephones Ramirez or her staff from another district about a former Mesa employee?

"We tell people enough things to alert anyone who is thinking straight," she says. "We don't want some kid to get hurt down the road. But what's shocking to me is how very few school districts call and ask us what we think about a prospective employee of theirs.

 
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