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.