ST. LOUIS (CN) – A new law has made Missouri the first state to try to break the code of silence among school districts that allow sexual predators to move from one district to another without mentioning allegations of the sexual misconduct.
The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act requires school districts to report substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct by educators to another school district that seeks a reference for that educator. School districts that fail to do so would become legally liable for damages if the educator commits any sexual misconduct in the new school district.
The law takes effect Aug. 28.
The law is named for a woman who said she was raped by a teacher more than 20 years ago, but kept quiet for years because she thought she was the only one. The teacher, who was allowed to jump from school district to school district despite allegations of misconduct, recently retired after being named “Teacher of the Year.”
Missouri is the First
Missouri is believed to be the first state to hold schools legally liable for failing to report accusations of sexual misconduct to prospective employers.
State Sen. Jane Cunningham, a Republican who sponsored the bill, told Courthouse News that a national study by The Associated Press 5 years ago alerted her to the problem.
“It found that the problem of sexual misconduct in schools is at least six times worse than priesthood sexual misconduct, and also Missouri was the 11th worst state among sexual abuse by teachers,” Cunningham said.
Traditionally, school districts sign confidentiality agreements with teachers facing allegations of sexual misconduct involving students, Cunningham said. The agreements often include a severance package for the teacher. Both sides keep the allegations quiet in order to avoid bad publicity.
A Town Divided
Missouri’s prime example could be that of Russell Hough, a former coach of girls softball and basketball at Warrensburg High in west central Missouri.
Hough was accused of sexual misconduct in 2004 and 2006, but was exonerated by Warrensburg’s internal investigations.
But in 2008, a Johnson County grand jury indicted Hough on two counts of statutory rape, after 15- and 16-year-old girls claimed they had sexual encounters with him on school property. Hough has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.
The allegations divided the town. Hough’s supporters labeled his six accusers as pariahs. The girls were called liars, bullies and white trash by a contingent who believed they were simply rebelling against a demanding coach. Their parents’ jobs were threatened and a group was formed to try to bully the girls’ attorney into dropping the case by threatening the attorney’s husband’s position as President of the University of Central Missouri, in Warrensburg, according to news reports.
The girls sued Hough and the Warrensburg school district, claiming the school did not even interview the girls in its “investigation,” and that Warrensburg knowingly hired Hough in 2003 after he left nearby Pleasant Hill district despite similar allegations from by female athletes.
The lawsuit was dismissed with prejudice in January this year.
Cunningham said the allegations involving Hough were not hidden by Pleasant Hill.
“Even in the minutes of the school board meeting when he was fired, it mentioned sexual misconduct as the reason,” Cunningham said.
Missouri’s new law also requires school districts to report allegations of sexual misconduct to the Children’s Division of the Department of Social Services within 24 hours; that department will then investigate the claim – not the school itself. The school, however, can do its own investigation of the accused employee’s employment history.
Schoolteachers and administrators already are mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse, but many longtime teachers say that in the case of suspected teacher-student sex, that rule is often honored more in the breach than in the observance.
The law is the culmination of 5 years of work for Cunningham, who has battled several teachers’ unions for it, including the National Education Association, the Missouri State Teachers Association and the American Federation of Teachers. The unions originally opposed the bill, but eventually supported it after some safeguards for educators were put in.
Otto Fajen, legislative director of the Missouri National Education Association, said his organization opposed the bill at first because it violated educators’ due process rights. He said that by working with Cunningham over the years, several of those issues were addressed, which led the NEA to endorse it.
“We decided that it was positive and we supported the bill and helped shepherd it through the legislative process,” Fajen said. “That being said, no bill is ever perfect. There is still room for improvement.”
Fajen praised a section of the bill that protects school employees who report others for questionable conduct. He said he hopes more protections for reporters will be added.
Fajen said the mandatory reporting of all accusations to the Children’s Division discounted school district employees’ professional experience on in the reporting process. For example, he said, if a student made an obviously false report, the accusation still must be reported, even though it is unsubstantiated. But Fajen acknowledged that such cases would likely be dismissed by the Children’s Division after investigation.
Fajen said that the bill’s most unusual aspect – holding schools legally liable for failing to report substantiated allegations of sexual misconduct to other districts seeking a reference – is not needed. Fajen said that substantiated claims would bring in other agencies, such as law enforcement, which would alert potential employers.
“I know that is part of the context of where the bill started,” Fajen said. “Amy Hestir testified year after year on behalf of this bill. She didn’t speak out about the alleged conduct, that happened when she was 14, until she was 22. The bill is named after somebody who didn’t say anything until she was 22, when the issue wasn’t live. What does that say about how to respond to that particular case?”
The new law carries a statute of limitations of 30 years after the victim reaches the age of 18.
Fajen said he is aware of the Associated Press reports of 5 years ago, but downplays the results.
“We saw the article as probably a case where the process didn’t work as well as it should have,” Fajen said. “But we don’t know as much about those cases as we should. It’s hard to know all the details without adjudication.”
Business as Usual
With more than 22,000 students, the Rockwood School District is the third-largest in Missouri. Kelvin McMillin, Rockwood’s assistant superintendent for human resources, said the law does not change the school district’s policy on claims of sexual misconduct. McMillin said Rockwood’s policy is to suspend immediately any educator alleged to have committed misconduct, and to fire the teacher if the claim is substantiated.
McMillin said such a claim against a Rockwood educator has not been made in his 7 years with the district, but that the district would pass along such information to another school district that sought a reference for a teacher who was fired for misconduct.
The legal liability aspect of the law is something new for the veteran administrator.
“I’ve personally never experienced where a district is legally liable (for failure to report a misconduct claim),” McMillin said. “I can tell you that I’m in favor of it.”
The only change for Rockwood would be the mandatory reporting to the Children’s Division. Rockwood’s policy is to handle the investigation of any claim itself.
“I have no problem turning it over to the Division of Social Services,” McMillin said. “Sometimes, it is nice to have an outside party do the investigation for validity. I think overall it is a good thing.”
McMillin said no school district he has been a part of, or any other school district that he knows of, has ever failed to let another school district seeking a reference know of any misconduct that a teacher may have committed.
Whether there is a code of silence between school districts or not, Cunningham urges a common-sense approach for school districts when giving a reference to another district.
“The question you have to ask is, ‘Would you rehire this person?'” Cunningham said.