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Idaho schools can miss out-of-state teacher applicants’ ethics problems

After teacher James Verity engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a female student and lost his Oregon teaching license, he found a job in Idaho.

Verity — a science teacher in Caldwell’s Vallivue School District — and others around the country with revoked licenses are able to get teaching jobs in different states, a recent USA Today investigation revealed.

In Idaho, the discovery pushed teacher ethics into the spotlight. And it highlighted gaps in the information available to school districts who are vetting job applicants from other states.

It’s relatively easy to check on applicants’ teaching histories when they come from within Idaho. It gets murkier when they’re outside the Gem State because it’s harder — sometimes impossible — to get their past job records.

Verity in Oregon allegedly exchanged more than 2,600 text messages with a female student and engaged in inappropriate physical contact before losing his license in 2006. He tried to get his license reinstated, but his application was denied, according to the USA Today report.

When he applied for a certificate in Idaho, the Idaho Professional Standards Commission — a group that investigates ethics complaints — denied his request. But after an appeals process, Verity received a certificate in 2009.

The Caldwell district didn’t know Verity lost his license in Oregon, USA Today reported.

If all of the pieces and parts don’t work correctly, you’re going to have people fall through the cracks.

Mike Poe, director of NNU’s educational leadership program

Amid questions from reporters to him and school officials, Verity resigned Feb. 22. The Idaho Department of Education declined to comment on the case.

ETHICS COMPLAINTS

Parents, school administrators and fellow educators all have an avenue for getting unethical teachers out of the classroom or disciplining teachers who make mistakes.

The Idaho ethics commission has taken action on 215 complaints since 2005, according to public records obtained by the Times-News. In the vast majority of cases, the state took disciplinary action — such as issuing a letter of reprimand or suspending or revoking a teaching license — but a handful of complaints were dismissed.

The commission permanently revokes a teaching certificate if an educator has pleaded guilty or been found guilty of a felony offense against a child. Those cases include former Burley High School vice principal Tara Bagley, convicted in July 2013 on two felony counts of sexual abuse committed by lewd or lascivious acts on a 16- to 17-year-old. Bagley was sentenced to two consecutive four- to 13-year prison terms after a plea agreement dismissed five charges of sexual battery of a minor.

The state ethics commission decided in August 2013 to permanently revoke her teaching certificate, state records show. But Bagley voluntarily gave up her certificate earlier that year.

Despite a handful of high-profile cases, a national expert said schools nationwide are safer than settings such as homes or neighborhoods.

“Schools are not particularly dangerous environments,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center. “There’s definitely progress that needs to occur, but we shouldn’t get too alarmed.”

RIGOROUS SCREENING

When hiring, Idaho school districts must verify the status of a prospective educator’s certificate. And when an employee moves between Idaho school districts, the person is required to submit to a new background check. Idaho districts are also required to request past performance records for potential hires — both from within and out of state.

The Gem State — like many other states — is experiencing a teacher shortage. If an employee checks out, the district is going to do everything it can to “get them to sign on the dotted line,” said Mike Poe, director of the educational leadership program at Northwest Nazarene University.

Some school districts have policies on background checks and hiring that go beyond Idaho’s requirements. For example, the Blaine School District typically disqualifies an applicant who has been convicted of any felony or a child-related crime.

“Once in a while, we’ll look a little deeper than that, but we definitely do not hire without that explanation or proof of paperwork,” Assistant Superintendent John Blackman said.

WHO UNDERGOES A BACKGROUND CHECK?

In past years, only certified Idaho educators had a background check before they started working at a school. That changed in 2008 with a bill sponsored by then-Rep. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls.

Now, background checks are required for student teachers, independent contractors and their employees, and other people who have unsupervised contact with students.

But if employees started working before background check requirements went into law — and haven’t moved to another school district — their past records may go unexamined.

“It’s possible that there are teachers who have worked many years within the district who have never received a background check,” said Lisa Colon, director of certification and professional standards for the Idaho Department of Education.

GAPS IN THE HIRING PROCESS

Nationwide, schools are improving their practices to work toward curbing child abuse, Finkelhor said. “There’s kind of a movement to set up prevention mechanisms in schools and youth organizations.”

But with 90 percent of new cases involving sex crimes against children, he said, perpetrators have no prior history, so a background check wouldn’t pick up anything.

Large school districts with fully staffed human resources departments have an easier time being thorough when hiring. But it can be a challenge for smaller, rural districts.

The key to keeping inappropriate people out of classrooms is “doing every piece of due diligence they can,” Poe said. “That takes time.”

School districts — due to a lack of money and staffing — typically rely heavily on information from states. And states rely on a database from the nonprofit National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification; there isn’t a federal government database of teacher ethics complaints.

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