SEX EDUCATION

SLIPSHOD BACKROUND CHEDKS, SCHOOL BOARDS THAT CUT DEALS, AND COLLEAGUES WHO PROTECT THEIR OWN. WHEN IT COMES TO TEACHERS WHO MOLEST, THE BIG PICTURE ISN'T PRETTY.

Shortly after Pitts quit, then-school superintendent George Smith wrote him a glowing letter of recommendation. The letter helped Pitts find a spot in a doctoral program at the University of Arizona and, later, jobs at the Tucson Unified School District and Northern Arizona University.

Last month a grand jury indicted the 57-year-old Pitts on charges of molesting a girl, now 16, from the time she was 9. The allegations are remarkably similar to those that were never investigated in Mesa years ago.

Sometimes, educators simply close their eyes to what terrible things their peers have done to children.

A case in point: Mesa high school teacher Larry Wright Judd was arrested in 1987 after molesting at least a dozen young girls. Several educators sent positive letters about Judd to a Superior Court judge after the teacher pleaded guilty to child molesting.

"I consider him to be a competent educator and an intelligent, reliable individual," wrote Kenneth Thompson, a supervisor with the Arizona Department of Education--on state stationery.

Mesa Vo-Tech principal A. Keith Campbell added on Mesa Public Schools stationery: "I have never once heard a voice raised questioning his integrity, his honesty or his responsibility to the school and the students."

Judd was sentenced to 22 years in prison without parole.
Fred Schon, the Payson High teacher and sex-crimes felon who was unmasked through an anonymous letter, also had his supporters.

A fellow teacher sent a positive letter about Schon to the state Board of Education during the proceedings to revoke Schon's license. Schon, the teacher wrote, was "in all respects the type of wholesome male role model that you would like to work with your own child."

ýNew teachers are given up to a year after the state licenses them to submit fingerprints for a criminal-history check.

Arizona in 1990 became the eighth state in the nation to mandate a fingerprint check of all prospective public-school teachers. It's a good law, says Superintendent of Public Instruction C. Diane Bishop, but it's limited.

"It doesn't help if someone doesn't have a record," Bishop says. "You can't look into an applicant's eyes and say they're a pedophile."
But there are other, less obvious troubles with the vaunted fingerprinting law. A teacher with a hidden history of sex crimes may be in contact with students for a year before a computer turns up a conviction. "It is scary to think about what could happen," says Berkley Lunt of the state's teacher-certification unit.

Even if a new teacher submits fingerprints before a school year, says state Department of Public Safety sergeant Rick Knight, it takes his agency six to eight weeks to run them through the FBI.

And then, everyone familiar with the process agrees, the information received often is woefully inadequate. More often than not, the FBI print-out indicates "disposition not recorded" about a case's outcome. That's usually where the teacher-certification staff leaves it.

Finally, the fingerprinting law doesn't affect teachers certified before the law went into effect. Fred Schon, the special-education teacher in Payson, received his certification before the state passed the 1990 law. The now-required fingerprint check may have uncovered his Alaska conviction.

ýThe Arizona Department of Education doesn't track where or even if the state's certified teachers are working.

In 1988, police arrested Glendale High special-ed teacher Raymond Bierner on charges of sexually fondling four teenage girls.

Superior Court Judge Frank Galati later dismissed the charges, in return for Bierner's written promise never again to apply for a teaching position--in Maricopa County.

The father of one of the girls complained bitterly about the deal: "What about kids in other places?" he asked the judge.

That became a bona fide issue after the Glendale school board didn't ask the state Board of Education to yank Bierner's teaching license. In June 1990, records show, the teacher-certification unit renewed his license for six years.

But Berkley Lunt says he doesn't know if Bierner is teaching in Arizona.
"We just know a person's certification status," Lunt says. "To find out where someone is working, you'd have to call each district or each county superintendent and ask them.

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