• May 3, 2016

Bad apples: Who is teaching Mississippi’s kids?

Bad apples: Who is teaching Mississippi’s kids?

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A principal served four years and two months in prison for attempted murder. Another pleaded guilty to embezzling $73,033 in electronics from his school. One teacher struck a student, and several others were accused of misconduct involving students.

DATABASE: Disciplined teachers in Mississippi

All of these individuals surrendered or lost their teaching license, and each of them was later reinstated by Mississippi’s commission responsible for disciplining educators.

Through open records requests and a review of the minutes for the Commission on Teacher and Administrator Education, Certification and Licensure and Development, The Clarion-Ledger found that since 2009, 52 educators’ licenses were reinstated following a previous revocation, suspension or voluntary surrender. Records show the commission issued licenses to another 23 educators despite knowing they had been convicted of felonies or lost their licenses in other states — sometimes for serious offenses.

Asked whether it’s acceptable to give licenses to educators who have been disciplined in Mississippi or other states or to those who have been convicted of felonies, State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright said, “I am but one person, and as state superintendent, I do not override the commission. I have no interface with the commission, the statute is clear about who’s on the commission and until statute says (otherwise), we have to abide by statute.”

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Wright doesn’t serve on the commission, which is made up of educators and those outside the field, but she spoke to members during a special meeting called on April 8 to address a backlog of educator disciplinary hearings.

Cindy Melton, who chairs the licensure commission and is education chairwoman at Mississippi College, also would not say whether it’s acceptable to issue licenses to those convicted of felonies or educators who have committed offenses such as misconduct with a student or embezzling from a school.

“You’re welcome to contact the (Mississippi Department of Education),” Melton said. “I can’t speak to those particular cases. I don’t have any further comment on those.”

A fresh start?

In the background of the state’s licensing choices is a public education system that starves for teachers. In the foreground is a philosophy that some violators deserve another chance.

Whitney Amis was teaching at Newton County High School when she was caught on video stealing students’ prescription drugs from the school nurse’s office twice in 2012. The following January, she surrendered her license.

“To be honest, me losing my license was probably one of the best things that ever happened to me because it really got my attention,” Amis said. “It woke me up.”

Losing her license caused Amis to attend a four-month outpatient rehab program for prescription pain medications. Now Amis is clean and works for Decatur’s East Central Community College, where she is an instructor for a program that helps students earn a GED while taking technical courses. The licensure commission reissued Amis’ teaching license last November.

“There’s not a doubt in my mind that they were merciful to me,” she said. “I don’t deserve my license back, … but I think I went in and was honest with them. I did bad stuff, I was a bad person, but I do want to teach. I do feel like that is my calling, I guess.”

Another recipient of a new license is a man who spent time in prison for a murder-for-hire scheme. More than 10 years ago, Abbigail Morton offered Robert Hunter $30,000 to inject a lethal amount of insulin into the IV of her husband, Richard Morton, who was recovering from gunshot wounds in a Memphis hospital.

Hunter had been principal of Jonestown Elementary School and a candidate for Coahoma County school superintendent before he pleaded guilty in 2004 to attempted murder and conspiracy to commit murder in Memphis. He served more than four years in prison, and the licensure board denied his application in 2010 but said he could reapply after his probation ended.

Hunter received a license last year and teaches English at Ruleville Central High School.

“My story kind of reminds me of the story of Job, who lost everything he had, and God restored his things back to him,” Hunter said. “I was guilty of what I did, but I’m grateful to the fact God has given me my life back because I threw it away and I’ve paid for it for a number of years.”

When he left prison, Hunter worked on a paper route then as a hospital chaplain before he attended seminary. He took up motivational speaking and directs the youth program at his church.

During the hearing to reinstate his license, the commission wrote that he’d taken responsibility and shown remorse for his actions and that he had provided evidence of good emotional and mental health. Hunter said two people testified during his hearing, and he provided records of his motivational speaking and tutoring students.

“I don’t deserve to wake up in the morning,” he said. “l don’t deserve to wake up, but God’s grace allows that. Just because someone makes mistakes in life doesn’t mean they’re not entitled to live again, and I have an issue with not giving people the opportunity to work. Otherwise, they might go back to a life of crime that they wouldn’t normally do.”

Among those whose licenses the commission reinstated are two educators who embezzled money from their school or from students. Roger Liddell, former principal of Simmons High School in the Hollandale School System, pleaded guilty in 2012 to embezzling $73,033 in electronics from the school, and his license was suspended in 2013. A state auditor’s office investigation found he’d used school district funds to buy equipment for his own use, including 17 computers, nine printers and six camcorders.

Liddell, who did not return a call for comment, was ordered to serve three years of probation, and his license was reissued two years ago. He serves as the elected superintendent of the Noxubee County School District.

Tiffany Jones-Fisher pleaded guilty to grand larceny in 2010 after a state auditor’s office investigation found she had collected $4,000 from students and parents for a school trip but spent the money for her own use. Her license was revoked and reissued in 2012.

In 2010, Thatcher Lamm’s license application was initially rejected in Mississippi because his license had been revoked in Nebraska for having a sexual relationship with a student. The Tennessee State Board of Education also rejected his license application. He received a license to teach art in Mississippi in 2011 but currently lives in Nebraska. He did not return a call for comment.

Commission member Rilla Jones, vice president of instruction at Northeast Mississippi Community College, said the educators who were disciplined and reinstated received due process.

“Every individual accused of that has a right to a hearing and everything explored and documented in the hearing. Every case is very individual,” she said.

But some experts, such as Sandi Jacobs, senior vice president for state and district policy for the National Council on Teacher Quality, question whether emphasizing the process misses the boat.

“I think what you see happening in a lot of places is if the letter of that due process is violated frequently, the termination isn’t upheld and also there is a feeling a lot of times people are sorry or deserve another chance, and sometimes they do,” she said. “Is what is in the best interest of kids or adults driving that decision, I think, is the important question.”

Decisions in the dark

It’s not easy to determine what those decisions are and how they’re made. Unlike many other states, MDE’s license database doesn’t show whether a teacher is under investigation for misconduct or whether his or her license has been revoked, suspended, surrendered or simply expired. Agreed orders involving discipline are public but aren’t stored in an accessible area of the website, and minutes from the licensure commission often provide scant detail or no information at all on allegations leading to disciplinary action.

Wright said hearing and commission actions are public record.

“I don’t know how much more public we can be,” she said. “We’re being as public with the information as we can be.”

The licensure commission maintains its meeting minutes on MDE’s website, but starting in 2014, the records began to offer far less insight into disciplinary action. The minutes leave out many of the names of multiple teachers who surrendered their licenses as well as their alleged violations. Some suspensions omit educators’ violations, and for those whose licenses were approved despite a previous felony conviction, many of the minutes omit the type of crime committed.

For July 2014, the minutes omit the name of Sandy Drane, who surrendered her license after being accused of unethical conduct with a student, records show. Drane, who was fired from Rankin County School District, received a divorce a month prior from Walt Drane, who works as MDE’s director of Operations and Test Security.

Seven months after Sandy Drane surrendered her license, the licensure commission began omitting crucial details from its meeting minutes.

The commission’s minutes haven’t mentioned a disciplinary hearing since February of last year. Wright and two current and former commission members said the hearings are conducted on a monthly basis or scheduled as needed.

Melton couldn’t answer who writes the minutes, why the minutes began to contain less detail or why the minutes stopped including disciplinary hearings altogether.

“That would be up to the MDE,” she said of the omission.

Previous reform efforts

Following an increased number of teachers accused of sexual misconduct with students, five years ago the state Legislature passed a law aimed at reforming educator discipline. At the time, MDE officials said school districts allowed teachers accused of misconduct to resign, and superintendents rarely reported the infractions to MDE.

The law required superintendents and principals to report student-teacher relationships to MDE and created a code of ethics that includes misconduct with students, called a “Standard Four” violation. Three years after the law went into effect, at least 38 educators had been involved in unethical behavior with students, including 21 accused of sexual misconduct, but MDE officials expressed concerns that superintendents rarely reported allegations.

Education attorney Jim Keith encourages his clients to send MDE a preliminary report after rumors of student-teacher relationships surface, before even completing their investigation — and to look into every allegation.

“Sometimes, investigations don’t support allegations and they follow up with a report (to MDE),” he said. “… however, the majority of cases I’m seeing, once we get into these investigations, we are more likely than not to determine there’s been some degree of violation of Standard Four, whether it’s texting with a student that is inappropriate, snapchatting, sending communications of an inappropriate nature or sexual misconduct. What this law does is it forces districts to investigate and not turn a blind eye.”

While there isn’t an obligation for school districts to share disciplinary histories for their previous employees, Keith encourages his clients to do so.

“If a school district terminates a teacher and that employee is able to maintain a license, and a school district contacts and asks about them and they don’t share the reason they terminated them, I think they’re subjecting themselves to additional liability,” he said.

According to the licensure commission’s meeting minutes, eight educators’ licenses were reinstated since 2009 after misconduct with a student, which can include student-teacher relationships, physical abuse or harassment. In some cases, the commission’s minutes said the educators had shown signs of rehabilitation, allowing them to renew their licenses.

“That’s not good,” said Cecil Brown, a public service commissioner who chaired the House Education Committee when the Legislature passed the disciplinary reform law. “The whole point of the law was to protect children. It was not to protect a teacher’s license. You can’t take a chance with a person who’s been in that situation and put them back in the classroom. I’m a big believer in rehabilitation, but that person needs to get another job and not be a teacher.”

Brian Pearse, who served on the licensure commission for six years before his term ended in February, said the group based its decisions on evidence presented during hearings.

“If they were reinstated, usually they proved their case, proved they were repentant or had done training, something that says they’ve changed,” he said. “If they don’t show they’ve changed in some form or fashion, they’re not reinstated.”

Melton would not say what types of evidence are compelling enough to reinstate an educator’s license after a serious offense.

“We can’t speak to that,” she said.

Source: Mollie Bryant The Clarion-Ledger

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