Longform

SEX EDUCATION

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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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin