Number of Pa. educators losing licenses increasing
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While school districts years ago used to be able to quietly negotiate an exit for some educators who abused children or committed other serious crimes, school leaders for the past decade have been required to report such allegations to the state Department of Education for potential disciplinary action.
In recent years, more certified education professionals have lost or had their certificates suspended, with 114 educators notified in 2010. That compares to 39 to 67 educators each year from 2004 through 2007.
Over the past eight years, the state has named 548 educators statewide who have been notified of action taken on their certificates, including public reprimands, suspensions, revocations, surrenders in lieu of discipline and reinstatements (there are 603 notifications because some individuals are subject to more than one action).
That counts 74 educators statewide whose certificates were suspended, revoked or surrendered in 2011 for actions ranging from sexual relationships to embezzlement, including two whose certificates were both suspended and revoked in the same year. The list covers a variety of certificates, including teaching and administrative.
"There may be a greater awareness now of the types of things that need to be reported," said Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. "The PSEA overall supports that."
Noting such cases are a small part of the state's 150,000 teachers, Mr. Keever said the PSEA wants due process followed but "has no interest in keeping teachers in the classroom who are guilty of inappropriate behaviors and actions."
The state Professional Standards and Practices Commission is empowered to direct the state Department of Education to suspend or revoke certificates.
The commission is a 13-member panel comprising seven classroom teachers, three public school administrators, a college administrator and two members of the general public, including a school board member.
Some educators surrender their certificates in lieu of discipline without presenting their cases before the commission.
"The goal is to protect children. Most of the cases that I have seen in my short time on the commission, a little over a year, have had to do with sexual exploitation of children and improper use of the Internet in that capacity," said commission member Shauna D'Alessandro, who is vice president of the West Jefferson Hills school board.
Under the Professional Educator Discipline Act, which took effect in 2001, public school leaders must notify the state Department of Education if an employee has been dismissed for cause, has engaged in conduct resulting in "criminal indictment" or conviction of certain serious crimes or other crimes of "moral turpitude." The law was introduced weeks after a 1999 Post-Gazette series on teachers convicted or disciplined in connection with sex-related offenses.
Reporting also is required if there is "information which constitutes reasonable cause to believe that a certificated employee has caused physical injury to a student or child as a result of negligence or malice or has committed sexual abuse or exploitation involving a student or child."
The law states failure to comply may result in disciplinary action against the chief school administrator.
For a couple of years, the commission has been working on a proposal that could strengthen and clarify the reporting requirement, if submitted to and approved by the Legislature.
Stuart Knade, chief counsel for the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said one suggestion calls for a new type of conduct subject to discipline, sexual misconduct, which would include attempts to develop romantic relationships with students. That would cover, for example, the case of a teacher sending romantic or sexual text messages to a student without having to show that any physical activity took place.
Another suggestion would make it mandatory to report if an employee resigns to avoid being terminated. In this case, "you can't let somebody scurry off to another job and not be reported," Mr. Knade said.
Also being considered is wording that makes more clear which misdeeds must be reported and language that covers any uncertified teachers at charter schools.
Mr. Knade said the commission's efforts to refine the law were under way long before the case of Penn State University football coach Jerry Sandusky, who is accused of child sex abuse, attracted national attention.
"The attention it's drawn to these issues certainly provides some impetus, but it also could create a traffic jam legislatively," he said.
Emily Leader, deputy chief counsel at the Pennsylvania School Boards Association and a former school solicitor in York County, said that in the 1980s, "it wasn't considered improper to let someone resign in the face of termination and not report it. That took a real sea change by the early 1990s."
Then, she said, many school districts began reporting cases in which the board was preparing to terminate the educator but the educator resigned instead.
She said the legislation helped to make it clear that employees terminated for cause must be reported to the state, but she still thinks the law "needs some work."
On the state Department of Education website, www.state.pa.us, a number of the allegations were sex-related, such as sex with minors, child porn and online sexual solicitations of minors, indecent assault and rape -- or were simply characterized as "inappropriate." Others involved money, substance abuse, alcohol, theft and lying.
The certification actions in 2011 went as high as the superintendent level, and included administrators as well as teachers and other staff.
Ten of the notifications of actions in 2011 involved educators in southwestern Pennsylvania.
• Amanda Dlugopolski, 26, a substitute teacher in Belle Vernon Area School District, revocation of K-6 certificate. Commission found that she "engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship" with a 17-year-old high school student.
• Joseph Peresie, 67, who taught in Freeport Area School District, revocation of certificate in various business subjects. Mr. Peresie pleaded no contest to the charge of unlawful contact with minor, sexual offenses. Other charges were dismissed or withdrawn. He was sentenced in 2010 to three to six months and 78 months of probation.
• Daniel E. Toler, 50, who was a math coach in Pittsburgh Public Schools, revocation of math certificate. He was arrested in 2008 on charges related to child pornography. He also participated in Internet and phone communication with an undercover agent posing as the mother of minors. Nearly a year ago, he was sentenced to 61/2 years in prison. He formerly taught at Pittsburgh Sunnyside K-8 and volunteered at the Hill House.
• Leslie Smith, 61, who was assistant director of Steel Center Area Vocational Technical School, surrendered his certificates in lieu of discipline. He was arrested on April 27 on charges related to allegations he sexually assaulted two women, one of them for as long as 15 years. In November, Mr. Smith, who had worked at the center since 1989 until the arrest, pleaded guilty to 19 counts, including rape of a person less than 13 years old, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse of a person with a mental disability and rape of a mentally deficient person. Mr. Smith is awaiting sentencing.
• Jennifer Lynn Smith, 30, who taught at Steel Valley High School, suspension of math 7-12 certificate. She was accused of sending sexual messages to two underage students, including exchanging nude photos and having explicit discussions on the cell phone. She is awaiting trial on charges including criminal solicitation, unlawful contact with a minor, corruption of minors and criminal use of communication facility.
• John Libert, 29, substitute teacher in Fort Cherry School District, suspension of English and communications certificates. Following the certificate suspension, he pleaded guilty to corruption of minors and indecent assault without the consent of the other and was sentenced to probation.
• Michael S. Cirner, 23, teacher in Monessen City School District, certified in K-12 technology education. Mr. Cirner allegedly had graphic online conversations with two undercover agents who were posing as a 13-year-old and a 14-year old. He was sentenced in April to two years in intermediate punishment and two years of probation after pleading guilty to three counts: two counts of unlawful contact with a minor, obscene and other sexual materials and performances, as well as one count of criminal use of communication facility.
• Ronald Zawrotuk, 39, teacher in Butler Area School District, suspension of certificate, after he was charged with corruption of minors. He pleaded guilty in November and was sentenced to 18 months of probation.
In addition, the commission noted the suspensions were lifted on two certificates:
• Robert Schwartz, 29, a band director in Beaver County. His certificate had been suspended for two years, beginning May 30, 2009, after allegations he "engaged in unprofessional conduct with a student."
• Jessica L. Todaro, 23, substitute teacher in Derry Area, early childhood and elementary certified. Her certificates were suspended for two years on Jan. 5, 2009, after allegations of "inappropriate personal communications with a student and spent time alone with the student outside of school."
First Published January 3, 2012 12:00 am