State failing to weed out unfit coaches
Tuesday, December 16, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.
Randy Hammack, 34, kissed and hugged the senior, then traced "I love you" on her car windshield before she drove off.
The district fired Hammack after the 1994 incident and, as required, notified the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) about his unprofessional conduct. It looked as if Hammack's successful coaching and teaching career were over.
But the OSPI, which licenses teachers and disciplines them for misconduct, took no action against Hammack. Instead, the agency dismissed the complaint without conducting an interview or offering an explanation.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Terry Bergeson offers no explanation for the OSPI's handling of Hammack's case. But research shows that her office's handling of Hammack is not unusual.
In a review of 10 years of OSPI records on sexual-misconduct complaints against teachers who coach, The Seattle Times found that:
The agency closed cases without conducting a single interview, leaving accused coaches and teachers with valid teaching certificates. Even when the OSPI did make inquiries, it dismissed without explanation 46 cases of sexual misconduct by coaches. These represent 42 percent of all such cases, which makes it difficult to determine whether the agency's actions were well-founded.
At least one of these coaches later applied to the OSPI and was given a new teaching certificate.
Even when the OSPI found serious wrongdoing, it ended up settling on weaker discipline after negotiating with lawyers for the teachers union. As a result, some coaches with years of sexual-misconduct complaints were put on "stayed suspension" essentially probation allowing them to continue teaching.
Of the five coaches placed on stayed suspension, the OSPI failed to monitor four. The coaches were supposed to inform new districts and other state education offices of their discipline. By hiding their past, they were able to land teaching jobs in nearby states.
(The Times did not examine private-school coaches who teach because their personnel files are not public records.)
When shown The Times' findings, Bergeson, a former Tacoma teacher and state teachers-union president, admitted to flaws in her operation and promised changes.
"It's very frustrating to me if even one person who has hurt a child would get to continue to work with kids," she said. "Somehow at the end, justice really isn't done."
'HIGHEST LEVEL OF DISCIPLINE' PLEDGED
But a Juanita High coach who admitted to
a relationship kept
his license to teach
The coaching profession has one of the highest rates of sexual-misconduct complaints, according to experts. A Times analysis of OSPI data shows that teachers who coach are three times more likely to be accused of and investigated for sexual misconduct by the state than noncoaching teachers.
Since roughly half of Washington's 15,000 school coaches are teachers, the state's oversight is crucial. Bergeson agrees and says a teacher or coach who has a sexual relationship with a student shouldn't be in the classroom ever again.
But the OSPI doesn't always practice what it professes. When a former Juanita High School coach and teacher confessed to the OSPI of an "improper physical relationship" with a 17-year-old girl on his track team, the agency allowed him to keep his teaching certificate.
Gary Millard, a math and chemistry teacher, taught at Juanita, in the Lake Washington School District, from 1987 to 1994. He also coached cross country and girls track, which is how he met his victim.
Rumors that he had slept with the teen athlete in the past surfaced in 1996 at a party and made their way to school officials, who alerted police.
According to a Kirkland police report, Millard allegedly had sex with the girl in a Juanita High classroom during the 1988-89 school year.
But police decided not to pursue the case, in part, because the statute of limitations had expired. Instead, school-district officials alerted the OSPI, forwarding a complaint for action in May 1996.
By then, Millard had been teaching and coaching cross country and track at Eastmont School District in East Wenatchee for two years.
It took the OSPI three years to close his case. During that time, investigators did not interview the victim, other students or school officials, records show. Instead, Bergeson's office collected Millard's performance evaluations and in 1998 wrote a letter to a student asking for information.
The OSPI decided in March 1999 to suspend Millard's teaching license, but he denied the allegations and fought back. OSPI administrator Mike Bigelow and Millard's union lawyer, Kevan Montoya, began to barter.
Bigelow proposed that if Millard would settle the case without a fight, the OSPI would change the language in its final documents from saying Millard had a "sexual relationship" to an "improper physical relationship" with the girl. Millard agreed, and was given a three-year stayed suspension that allowed him to keep his job unless he got into trouble again.
"I believe people need second chances," Millard said. "I'm a faithful husband, father and teacher today. I don't like the sins I do. I can assure anyone that I'm no risk to anyone."
Bergeson said she's seen investigations of a popular coach or teacher derailed because of local pressures. The OSPI's Office of Professional Practices and its three investigators are not influenced by "the feelings people have about that teacher because they think they're wonderful and they could never have done this terrible thing," she said.
Its investigators complete on average 22 sexual-misconduct cases a year, about one-fifth of all complaints.
Bergeson said she doesn't want "people to not come into the profession because they are going to get bird-dogged out." The OSPI must balance the rights of teachers with its duty to protect students, said Bergeson.
To reprimand a teacher, the OSPI must find that the teacher by "a preponderance of evidence" in other words, more likely than not lacked good moral character or committed unprofessional conduct. To suspend or revoke a teacher's license, the state must prove its case by "clear and convincing evidence."
Some lawyers for school districts say the OSPI is too timid. Rocky Jackson, an attorney who represents school districts, said he has been dismayed at the OSPI's handling of some coach-misconduct cases. "Some of it is probably due to staffing," he said.
The OSPI tries to "give the highest level of discipline, if we can prove it," Bergeson said.
PUNISHMENTS ARE OFTEN REDUCED
A softball coach fought the state until it allowed him to keep teaching
The OSPI's level of discipline may start out high, with a revocation, but often ends up lower putting a teacher back in the classroom. Consider the case of Rueben Rojas, a softball and wrestling coach at Highline High School in the Highline School District.
In another complaint, a student said Rojas sent out an offensive invitation: "Everybody come back at 3:00 for naked weightlifting. It's quite exciting to feel the sweat drip from your scrotum."
Highline turned Rojas' case over to the OSPI in 1995.
While the OSPI investigated, Rojas got a California teaching license in 1998 after stating he wasn't under investigation in any state for misconduct.
He was hired as a Spanish teacher and football coach for the Lake Elsinore School District in Southern California.
Back in Washington, the OSPI decided that Rojas wasn't fit to be around children and told him so in June 2000, saying it was going to revoke his license.
But later in the letter, the OSPI stated it was willing to negotiate with him because "the legal cost to the department is substantial."
The OSPI made an offer. If Rojas agreed to a three-year suspension, the agency would drop its revocation.
He didn't agree and appealed.
Bergeson's staff and Rojas eventually agreed to a one-year stayed suspension, which allowed him to teach in Lake Elsinore. The OSPI also eliminated language that he touched and kissed the girl who ironed his clothes.
Rojas also agreed to undergo a psychological evaluation to verify that he wasn't a threat to students.
But seven months passed before the OSPI figured out that Rojas did not get his evaluation. In May, the OSPI suspended Rojas' license for one year.
He is still teaching in California. He didn't return calls for comment.
CHANGING STATES TO AVOID PENALTIES
A reprimanded coach went to work in Utah by hiding his past
John M. Taylor, 59, was another Washington coach and teacher who skirted OSPI enforcement by crossing state lines.
Taylor was a successful longtime volleyball and softball coach in the Oakesdale School District in Eastern Washington. As volleyball coach, Taylor made more than a dozen trips to the state tournament, winning in 1977 and 1978, and took the softball team to the state tournament for the first time, placing fourth in 1998.
"It took way too long; that's ridiculous," Oakesdale Principal Lisa Holmes said. The delay left the girls and their parents anxious and hurt morale on her staff, Holmes said.
But Taylor's winning record was soon tainted with another complaint. In 2000, softball players said Taylor walked onto the team bus despite players warning him that one girl was undressed. He walked to the back of the bus anyway, passing the partially dressed girl, and gave another player a hug.
School officials also heard that Taylor repeatedly made sexual innuendoes to the players and routinely made girls change into their uniforms on the bus while he was able to watch.
The principal removed Taylor as volleyball and softball coach and informed the OSPI of his misconduct. Shortly after that, he left the school.
After a seven-month investigation, the OSPI handed Taylor a 36-month stayed suspension.
"He should have been nailed, losing his license," said Melvin Louk, Oakesdale's superintendent at the time.
Under the terms of the probation, Taylor had to notify the OSPI if he moved to a new district. If he took a job in another state, he had to inform its education office about his misconduct.
But he didn't comply with any of the requirements when he moved to Utah and in 2001 began teaching math at a middle school in the Jordan School District in Sandy, Utah.
The OSPI, which was supposed to monitor him, had no idea he had violated the terms of his stayed suspension. And the Jordan district and the Utah licensing board knew nothing of Taylor's checkered career in Washington because he didn't tell them.
Taylor said he simply forgot. "Shame on me."
"When you are looking for a fresh start, you don't want to bring old troubles with you," he said. "I was hoping to put everything behind me."
The Taylor case illuminates a loophole in the way Washington disciplines coaches and teachers. When the OSPI revokes or suspends a teacher's license, it notifies a national clearinghouse used by school administrators to check teaching certificates.
But Washington code does not require the OSPI to tell the clearinghouse when teachers like Taylor are given stayed suspensions. As a result, it's more difficult for other states to monitor Washington teachers who get into trouble.
Carol Lear of Utah's Professional Practices Advisory Commission cannot understand the purpose behind Washington's stayed suspensions and cannot believe the OSPI doesn't share that information with other states. "It's so outrageous and out of date," Lear said. "It makes me angry."
After a Times reporter inquired about Taylor's background in Utah, he was placed on administrative leave and is being investigated by Lear's office for concealing his Washington disciplinary record.
QUESTIONS PROMPT STATE CHANGES
Investigators will no longer drop a case simply because the teacher's license lapses
More recently, OSPI investigators have been completing all sex-misconduct investigations, ending the practice of dropping them when a teacher let his license lapse, she said. No longer will a coach or teacher be able to wait out the OSPI, then later apply for a new teaching certificate.
"Some of these people are very clever," said Bergeson, who is up for re-election next year. "You can't underestimate the wiliness of the people who are trying to get back in the system."
She also noted her office began giving sexual-misconduct complaints a priority in 1998. In the past few years, those cases have been closed more quickly, on average in 15 months. (Even so, reporters still found a handful of recent sex-misconduct cases that took more than two years to complete.)
Misconduct cases will no longer be closed without explanation, she said. Investigators will now have to list why no punishment was meted out.
She also will ask the state Legislature to give the agency money for a fourth investigator.
Bergeson admitted that her office needs to be more vigilant about sexual misconduct.
"If we even have one person out there, it's not good enough," she said.
Christine Willmsen: 206-464-3261 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Maureen O'Hagan: 206-464-2562 or email@example.com
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