The Arizona Board of Education disciplines teachers for sexual activity with students far more than for any other reason.
Slipshod hiring and firing practices in Arizona school districts make the state "like a King's Table all-you-can-eat buffet for pedophiles," says a veteran Phoenix sex-crimes investigator. A New Times investigation shows the state Board of Education has disciplined 119 certified teachers and administrators in some way since 1985.
Sixty-six--more than half--were punished for sexual activities with minors. Of that number, two-thirds--44 teachers--had been accused of having sex with students. In the big picture, 44 teachers in seven years may not seem like an epidemic in a state with more than 32,000 certified educators. Those are the cases we know about. "What scares us is that there are such glitches in the system," says Horizon High School teacher Linda Thieken, who serves on a state committee that advises the Arizona Board of Education on complaints against teachers. "What scares us is the cases we never hear about."
New Times interviewed dozens of school administrators, teachers, state education officials and parents for this series. Among the findings:
Many Arizona school districts do inferior background checks on prospective teachers.
In September 1990, the weekly Superior Sun trumpeted the hiring of the old mining town's new elementary schoolteacher. The front-page story said Steve Mazer would be teaching kindergarten and English as a Second Language, an important job in the predominantly Hispanic community northeast of Phoenix.
The local paper spoke of Mazer's "vast and varied" teaching experience at Arizona schools in Mesa, Bagdad, Willcox and Phoenix. It quoted the 39-year-old Mazer: "There is nothing more intrinsically rewarding than teaching younger children."
Mazer said he had "lost" his wife and daughter years earlier in an unspecified manner. "Tragedy is a very leveling experience," he told the paper. "It makes you appreciate things so much more."
Pinal County prosecutors last April indicted Mazer on charges of molesting three young female students over a six-month period that ended in April 1991. He has pleaded innocent and is in jail awaiting trial.
Mazer's previous criminal record showed nothing more serious than a speeding ticket. But a thorough background check may have gleaned compelling information from Mazer's previous employers. Sources in Bagdad tell New Times school officials there knew of rumors about Mazer's alleged sexual activity with children.
The rumblings were troubling enough, the sources say, that a principal placed a "teacher's aide" in Mazer's classroom to keep an eye on him. But the schools never asked local police to investigate. Without fanfare, the Bagdad school board allowed Mazer to quit at the end of the 1988 school year.
"It's not only grossly negligent, but it is criminal for districts not to spend a few dollars for background checks on teachers who will be working with children," says Paul Fischer, an attorney who represents one of Mazer's alleged Superior victims.
And what about Steve Mazer's allegedly deceased wife and child? A private investigator working on the case says he hasn't found evidence that Mazer ever had a wife and child.
Superior school district officials declined to discuss what steps they took to investigate Mazer's background. In another case, the Payson school district failed to uncover sex-crimes convictions against an applicant it hired.
Fred Schon applied in 1989 for a license to teach in Arizona's public secondary schools. Schon's rsum reflected a distinguished teaching career that had spanned two decades. He checked "no" on his application next to a question about felony convictions for sex-related offenses.
The state issued Schon a teaching credential and he found work as a special-education teacher and guidance counselor at Payson High. But an anonymous note to the Payson district sunk Schon. In a 1971 Alaska case, Schon pleaded guilty to two felony counts of lewd and lascivious acts with children. But he ended up with a sweetheart deal. Prosecutors dismissed 28 counts--each with a different young boy as an alleged victim--as part of a plea bargain. A judge then granted Schon probation.
Although the state of Alaska revoked Schon's license to teach there, Wyoming granted him a teaching credential in 1973. Schon did not mention his felony convictions on his application there. He taught in Wyoming for years without apparent incident.
Schon again omitted his felony past on his teaching applications when he moved to Arizona. But after someone reported the Alaska conviction anonymously to the school district in July 1990, Schon surrendered his license to teach in Arizona.
The state of Arizona forwarded that information to a nationwide clearinghouse based in San Diego. Each month the clearinghouse sends print-outs of all teacher disciplinary actions to every jurisdiction except Iowa and Washington, D.C. But background investigations are apparently incomplete in other states, as well. These days, Fred Schon is licensed to teach in the public schools of Colorado.
Many Arizona districts--especially small, rural, poor ones--often allow teachers suspected of aberrant behavior to quit, without putting the real reasons in their personnel files.
"It's very costly to fire a teacher and then try to get his certification lifted," says David Bernheim, a member of the Sierra Vista school board and a longtime sex-crimes detective for the Sierra Vista Police Department. "School boards usually aren't trying to punish a person. They're trying to keep him or her from interfacing with the students."
Certainly, not every hushed-up teacher resignation ends in tragedy for students in other school districts.
But many do.
Last year, the state Board of Education revoked the teaching license of Jimmie Benally after Benally's conviction on child-molesting charges. Benally was a popular elementary-school teacher for 16 years on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Chinle. In 1986, however, the Chinle school board allowed Benally to resign after allegations of child molesting surfaced.
Benally's personnel record at Chinle didn't indicate the real reason for his resignation. Instead, his tenure appeared to have been untainted.
Benally moved to another Navajo school up the road in Lukachukai. He taught there for two years before authorities arrested him on allegations of molesting several young boys. He is serving a ten-year prison sentence.
"All some school people can think of is, 'We've got to get this person away from our kids,'" says Tempe Mountain Pointe High principal Harold Slemmer. "That's not enough."
Adds Vic Hooper, an ex-president of the Arizona Board of Education and a Mesa insurance agent, "Until one of these pedophiles gets some kind of record, they can go from district to district and there's no way to know it. That's bad."
Prodded by their lawyers, school administrators often fear being sued by an ex-employee more than they fear for the safety of students.
"Once you know there are substantial allegations," says Phoenix South Mountain High principal Art Lebowitz, "I think you have to go aggressively after the person. But if you're wrong, your district can be held legally liable. That's why districts are more likely to try to get a settlement with an employee and be done with it."
Sometimes, such "settlements" may come back to haunt vulnerable students and their schools.
South Mountain hired David Bruce McCord as a math teacher in 1988. A few years earlier, he had been allowed to quit a teaching job at Mesa High School after police told school officials he was suspected of molesting his three young stepchildren (Sex Education," October 28). The police didn't arrest McCord only because the mentally and physically handicapped children had been adjudged incompetent to testify by prosecutors.
The Phoenix district's background investigation on McCord admittedly was slipshod. But even a thorough investigation likely would have revealed little, if anything, about the true reasons for the teacher's leaving. That's because the Mesa district's attorneys advised school officials to release little more than the names, ranks and serial numbers of ex-employees to prospective employers. (That policy has changed. See story on page 26.) McCord went on to molest several boys at South Mountain. He was sentenced earlier this year to what in effect is a life prison term.
"In some school districts," says Phoenix police sex-crimes detective Mariano Albano, who investigated the McCord case, "those in charge fear legal retribution for passing along information more than they consider the safety of students. The priorities get mixed up."
School boards that permit teachers to quit under a cloud of sexual allegations may sign gag orders that keep the true reasons for the resignation under wraps.
Last year the Scottsdale school district allowed longtime high school science teacher Philip Smith to resign. The official reason: "unprofessional conduct."
Local newspapers tried to no avail to find out why the school's Science Department chairman had suddenly quit after more than two decades. But by prior agreement with Smith, no one in authority would discuss the resignation. Two months later, he quietly surrendered his teaching license to the state.
The real reason for Smith's departure is contained in a scrawled, one-sentence entry attached to his personnel file at the Arizona Department of Education: "This person was fired for sexual exploitation of a minor."
Bill Williams, the superintendent of the Flagstaff Unified School District, says he encourages his school board not to issue a gag order when it allows a teacher to resign.
"I hate it when one of those things is imposed as part of a dismissal," says Williams, who also serves as chairman of the state's Professional Practices Advisory Committee. "I'd like to think that most districts aren't giving everything away in serious cases. But I'm not sure."
Public school officials in rural Cochise County also try to avoid gag orders. School superintendents there will allow a teacher to quit instead of being fired, but only if the teacher signs an affidavit citing the true reasons. That document then is made part of the public record.
Scottsdale's Philip Smith hasn't reapplied for a license to teach in Arizona. But if he did?
"We'd have to find a good reason not to issue a license to this individual," says Berkley Lunt, director of the teacher-certification unit at the state Department of Education. "He's never been arrested or charged with anything. He's never been fired. He has credentials."
School officials sometimes trade letters of recommendation for the quiet resignations of teachers they suspect of misconduct.
Even if the Superior School District had done an adequate background check of its now-jailed teacher Steve Mazer, it may have run into a brick wall in Bagdad.
Attorney Paul Fischer says Mazer's former employers in Bagdad wrote positive letters of recommendation for Mazer after allowing him to resign.
"It's not right in any way," Fischer says, "to send out nice letters of recommendation when you know there are serious allegations of misconduct against a teacher that haven't been resolved."
But it happens. In 1977, the Mesa school board allowed music teacher and administrator Ralston Pitts to resign after a couple accused him in a letter of having seduced their daughter when she was a junior-high student. Mesa police never were informed of the allegation (Sex Education, Part II," November 18).
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."
New 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.
The 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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.
- Inmates Accuse Arizona of Experimenting with Lethal-Injection Drugs
Thu., Dec. 10, 6:25pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:00pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
Fri., Dec. 11, 7:30pm
- 10 Things Arizonans Hate About Snowbirds
- Scottsdale Couple Are Pioneers in Tiny-Home Movement in Arizona