Longform

SEX EDUCATION

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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.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin