WHY THE STATE CAN'T SPOT MOLESTERS
Berkley Lunt rattles off the names the way sports fans recite the rosters of their favorite teams. Ken Lamberton. Jimmie Benally. Doug Koenig. Robert Zabroske.
But these aren't people Lunt feels any fondness toward.
David McCord. John Boone. Louis Emanuel. Suzanne Yeager.
They are teachers whose sexual exploits with students made headlines in the Valley and around Arizona: Lamberton seduced and ran off with one of his junior-high students; Boone molested more children than anyone--not just teachers--ever documented in the United States; Yeager had sex with a 14-year-old boy; Catholic school teacher Emanuel impregnated a student.
"There are a whole lot of teachers in Arizona and there are bound to be some bad apples," says Lunt, director of the teacher-certification unit for the Arizona Department of Education. Lunt's staff should serve as Arizona's first line of defense against sexually predatory teachers. But it isn't a crack investigative team, and it's the first to admit it.
"We don't have the resources to investigate everyone who applies for a teaching license," says Lunt, a plain-talking man not given to hyperbole. "We don't have time to even think sometimes, much less investigate. I live in fear of a screw-up on our end."
The unit's 20 employees work diligently to keep up with seemingly endless paperwork. Arizona has grown in population by almost a million people since 1980, with a parallel increase in public-school enrollment and teacher hirings. But the teacher-certification unit has about the same number of employees as it did a decade ago.
With Governor Fife Symington--whose own children attend private schools--urging cutbacks in spending for public education, things won't improve in the unit soon.
"We've asked more than a couple of times for more personnel down there," says Superintendent of Public Instruction C. Diane Bishop. "But if it looks like you're trying to increase a bureaucracy, you don't get anywhere."
Last fiscal year, Lunt and his staff processed about 17,000 teaching certificates and fielded about 41,000 telephone calls. It's a daunting job, especially during the flood of late-arriving applications that pour in just before each school year starts.
Among its other tasks, the teacher-certification staff determines whether an applicant has submitted fingerprints for a mandatory FBI criminal-history check. A staffer takes note if the check uncovers a conviction that a would-be teacher failed to mention on the application.
But that's about as far as the state of Arizona goes in its teacher-background investigations. The rest is up to a school district.
"The onus is on school administrators, the school board and the parents to follow through on cases--not on the state," says Linda Thieken, a high school teacher who is a member of the state's Professional Practices Advisory Committee. "What they have to do is listen very hard to the children, then take action if it adds up. If they don't, there's not much the state can do."
It was business as usual at the teacher-certification unit in downtown Phoenix last week. In his small office, Berkley Lunt studied the large charts that depict the status of the state's pending teacher-discipline cases. A majority of the cases are related to sexual improprieties of some nature.
"I wish we could do more to investigate people ahead of time," he says. "You always wonder if these cases are just the tip of the iceberg."
Around him, staffers were furiously crunching paperwork. Telephone calls were coming in one after another: Does so-and-so have a current license to teach? Has so-and-so completed his master's degree on time?
"Those people in certification are unsung heroes for what they do," says Bishop. "But they just can't do complete backgrounds.
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.