Legislators seek changes in teacher hiring

.MINNEAPOLIS (AP) – School administrators would be required to know the full licensing history of prospective teachers before they hire them, under changes to Minnesota law that several state lawmakers plan to propose next year.

The proposed changes are in response to a series by The Associated Press investigating how states handle sexual misconduct by teachers. In Minnesota, the AP found several instances of teachers with past license suspensions for sexual misconduct, working in schools where no administrators knew about their pasts.

While such information is available to school leaders who contact the Minnesota Board of Teaching, nothing in state law requires schools to make such a check. Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said that needs to be remedied.

“We’re just going to plain require districts to also check and see what the Board of Teaching has,” said Greiling, the chairwoman of the House committee that sets public school budgets. “These schools in the story, they could have found out about it if they had made one phone call.”

In one case, a male teacher suspended for six months in 2003 for writing several sexually suggestive notes to an underage female student moved on a few years later to a school district in another part of the state. While there’s nothing illegal about his continued employment, the superintendent and other officials at that school weren’t aware of his licensing record until contacted by the AP.

From 2001 to 2005, the state Board of Teaching revoked, suspended or denied the licenses of 69 teachers for some kind of sexual misconduct. At least one-third of those cases involved student victims; the number could be higher, but it’s not possible to know for sure because of the way the Board of Teaching keeps its records.

The AP found a total of three cases from that time period of teachers working in districts where administrators didn’t know about their past license suspensions. Greiling said she has instructed legislative staff to start working on a bill that would require school administrators to call the Board of Teaching with the names of all potential hires, to find out if their license has ever been suspended.

Greiling said the bill would be introduced when the Legislature convenes in February.

Karen Ballmer, the executive director of the Board of Teaching, said such a requirement could present logistical problems for some districts.

“I think the reality of the volume of hires that happen at certain times of the year, especially in some of our larger districts, could make that difficult,” Ballmer said.

But, Ballmer said, the Board of Teaching would work with lawmakers to find a way to solve the problem. She suggested a more efficient route might be to require that schools ask on employment applications if a teacher has ever had action taken against their license.

“Without having thought through the mechanics too carefully yet, the idea of districts taking a more proactive stance is a good idea,” Ballmer said.

Minnesota has about 52,800 licensed teachers.

Another leading legislator on education issues, Rep. Mark Buesgens, R-Jordan, said he has instructed legislative staff to look into drafting a bill that would go even further than Greiling envisions. Buesgens wants teacher licenses to be flagged if the teacher has ever been suspended by the state.

Under that plan, anyone who looks up a teacher’s license through the Board of Teaching’s online lookup would be able to see if the license has ever been suspended – information that doesn’t currently appear.

“I don’t see why this is information that shouldn’t be available to anyone who wants to access it,” said Buesgens, an administrator at a St. Paul charter school. “And most of all, obviously it would be immediately available to anyone at a school who needed that information.”

The AP report alerted at least one school administrator to the potential pitfalls of hiring a teacher without knowing the person’s full licensing history. Nancy Triplett, the teacher ethics specialist at the state Board of Teaching, said she got a call Monday morning from an administrator who had read the story the day before and decided it was worth checking on the licensing record of an applicant the school was about to hire.

Triplett wouldn’t identify the school or other details, but said when she ran a check on the teacher’s name, she was able to notify the administrator that the applicant had a suspended license at one time.

The administrator “was relieved to have checked,” Triplett said.