Teacher abuse reform falls short in Missouri legislature

Tuesday, May 20, 2008 | 5:26 p.m. CDT; updated 6:47 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

COLUMBIA — A pair of proposals allowing local school districts to more easily rid Missouri classrooms of teachers who sexually abuse their students failed to win approval in the recently concluded legislative session.

A bill sponsored by Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, that broadened the list of criminal offenses under which the state would automatically revoke a teacher’s license won House approval in a 139-6 vote in late February, but did not advance to a vote by the full Senate.

More than two months later, the Senate Education Committee endorsed a version of Cunningham’s bill on May 7 that substituted language from a related proposal by Senate President Pro Tem Michael Gibbons.

The scaled-down measure called for civil immunity to local districts and employees who share more-detailed employment histories of job-hunting teachers.

But in the final, frantic days of the session, which concluded May 16, lawmakers failed to vote on either proposal.

Both Cunningham and Gibbons said they introduced their bills in response to an Associated Press investigation into teacher sex abuse. The AP inquiry found that 87 licensed teachers in Missouri lost their credentials from 2001 through 2005 because of sexual misconduct.

“It’s almost like the senators just have their heads in the clouds,” Cunningham said late last week after it became clear her proposal had stalled. “They don’t seem to understand the gravity of the issues and the tremendous need to protect students.”

Gibbons was ill, according to a spokeswoman, and could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But state Sen. John Loudon — who declined a request by Cunningham to add the teacher abuse provisions to a child pornography bill that ultimately passed — said the measure failed in part because of strong opposition from statewide groups representing teachers and school districts.

“I know there was some concern, as there always is, about the degree to which innocent people would get caught up,” he said.

Loudon, R-Ballwin, said he rejected her request to amend his bill out of concern that any last-minute additions would have scuttled his proposal, which was the final bill to win approval this year.

“We had enough of a fight just to get floor time for that bill,” he said. “It was really for no other reason than lack of time.”

Cunningham is leaving the House because of term limits and plans to challenge Gina Loudon later this year in a Republican primary for the Senate seat Loudon’s husband is vacating under term limits.

John Loudon denied that political considerations played a role in his decision to not embrace Cunningham’s teacher abuse proposal.

“That’s a baseless assertion,” he said, noting that Cunningham’s bill sat in the Senate Education Committee for more than two months before it advanced to the floor in the session’s waning days.

Cunningham’s original proposal added second- and third-degree sexual misconduct — along with any sexual contact with a student while on school property — to the list of offenses that require the state to automatically revoke a teacher’s license or deny a new teacher’s license request.

The proposal also included annual criminal background checks for all licensed teachers. Currently, such checks are required only for new teachers and those whose licensing requirements change because of a job switch.

The system doesn’t monitor teachers licensed before 2004 or those who get into trouble after the initial background check.

And the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education would have been required to not only conduct criminal background inquiries, but also use a second, broader state database of child abuse and neglect reports.

A recent state audit cited poor communication among the Education Department, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and the Department of Health and Senior Services for allowing teachers with histories of child and elder abuse to continue working with children, despite state laws intended to bar such offenders from the classroom.

Among the bills’ most vocal supporters was Amy Davis of Columbia, a 40-year-old mother who says she was sexually assaulted nearly three decades ago by a junior high teacher in Moberly.

“I don’t regret (coming forward) one bit,” she said. “It’s been very healing to me, like nothing else in 26 years has been.”

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