UPDATE: Missouri schools seek legal loophole to protect students

Tuesday, February 2, 2010 | 5:26 p.m. CST; updated 8:45 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 3, 2010

COLUMBIA — Missouri school superintendents who want to keep troubled teachers from returning to the classroom said Tuesday they feel hamstrung by rules that restrict them from sharing information on why teachers lose their jobs.

The state legislature is considering a measure that would give civil immunity to local districts and employees who share more detailed employment histories of job-hunting teachers. Similar proposals have fallen short the past two years.

Twenty-two superintendents gathered at MU for a round-table discussion of educational policy issues to tell Attorney General Chris Koster they need lawmakers' help.

"We just feel like our hands are tied," said John Robertson, superintendent of the Hallsville R-IV School District.

A 2007 Associated Press investigation found that 87 licensed teachers in Missouri lost their credentials from 2001 through 2005 because of sexual misconduct.

In one instance, state personnel laws intended to protect an employee's privacy instead allowed a teacher fired for sexual misconduct to hop from one small, rural school district to the next, without any warning to his new bosses about his past problems.

That teacher held eight jobs over 15 years, including three after he quietly resigned from the Kingston district in 2000 following complaints of sexual harassment by at least a dozen students.

Rather than report teacher Greg Crowley to the state for possible punishment, the Kingston district instead agreed to accept his resignation and paid him a severance worth more than $16,000. The legal agreement also prevented the Kingston district from telling future employers the real reason why Crowley left.

Such pacts are essentially "gag orders," said Dan Lowry, a former superintendent in LaMonte, Trenton and Moberly who now leads the university's Partnership for Educational Renewal.

Koster, a former state senator, told the superintendents he planned to share their concerns with former colleague Charlie Shields, the Senate president pro tem — perhaps as soon as Wednesday. Koster stopped short of endorsing any changes, though.

State law requires local districts to report certain severe offenses to authorities, including child abuse. For other misconduct that falls short of a criminal offense, districts have more discretion.

Todd Fuller, a spokesman for the Missouri State Teachers Association, said school districts and superintendents have only themselves to blame if they sign confidentiality agreements.

"They're not dealing with their responsibilities," he said. "If the district isn't dealing with that particular issue, or the administration isn't, then shame on them."

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