Commentary

U.S. Public Schools Failing to Combat Predatory Employees

This article appeared in School Reform News on July 1st, 2005.

Julia Haich had been misled by the school she trusted to protect her, and now another girl was suffering.

On March 20, Steven Ostrin, a 51-year-old history teacher at New York’s prestigious Brooklyn Tech, was arrested for allegedly groping and kissing a 15-year-old student.

It was not his first offense. Haich, now 19, said Ostrin molested her in 2002—but when she reported the assaults to school officials, they persuaded her not to press charges, promising Ostrin would retire at the end of the academic year. Haich believed them.

“I thought if I spoke up about what happened, it would never happen again,” she told the New York Daily News for a March 29 story. “I was wrong.”


Predators Lurking Nationwide

Haich’s 2002 accusations were not the first ever leveled at Ostrin. According to the Daily News story, in 1992 female students at Boys and Girls High School in Brooklyn complained that Ostrin “told X-rated stories and rubbed their shoulders and arms.”

In response, “officials placed a letter in Ostrin’s file and ordered him to ‘act appropriately,’” the Daily News reported. Despite that admonition, Ostrin continued to make off-color remarks in front of students and to touch them—behavior he attributed to being a “touchy-feely person.”

Assaults like those allegedly perpetrated by Ostrin are not uncommon in public schools. Nor is it uncommon for districts to fail to adequately protect students from them.

According to a report from the state’s auditor general and a Detroit News investigation, Michigan fails to keep tabs on teachers convicted of sexual assault and other crimes. More than 200 licensed school workers in Michigan had criminal records in 2004, and the state didn’t know about 178 of them.

In addition, the state often failed to revoke the certification of teachers found guilty of crimes—including, according to the Lansing State Journal, Matthew Mankoff, a band teacher in Deckerville found guilty of soliciting sex from a minor in 2003, and William Ayler, a Detroit teacher who pleaded guilty in 1997 to one count of second-degree sexual assault.

In Florida, David Mosquera, a 71-year-old Orange County school bus monitor, was arrested in April and charged with eight counts of abuse for molesting a special-needs child.


Complaints Are Common

Earlier this year, a Berwyn, Illinois elementary school band teacher was arrested on charges of molesting five girls between 1999 and 2003. According to court documents, Robert Sperlik, 45, used duct tape to bind his victims to chairs before fondling them.

Although Sperlik’s arrest didn’t come until 2005, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that in 2001 three girls told district officials Sperlik had touched them inappropriately. In response, the district placed in Sperlik’s file a reprimand and guidelines on how to teach without touching. The police didn’t hear about the 2001 allegations until they were contacted in January 2005.

According to Educator Sexual Misconduct, a 2004 report by Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft, as many as one out of every 10 children will suffer school employee sexual misconduct at some point between kindergarten and 12th grade. That figure includes teachers telling sexually themed jokes or making suggestive gestures—mild behavior compared to the acts allegedly committed by people like Mosquera and Sperlik, but behavior that can harm students nonetheless.

Of course, no one wants potentially threatening employees in the schools. So why are incidents of misconduct so prevalent?


Communication Is Lacking

The first problem is that keeping predators out of schools is difficult because many have no records of abuse before they’re hired. As a result, Shakeshaft noted, “screening will not identify the majority of educators who have or will sexually abuse.”

The system also breaks down, as the Michigan auditor general found, because individuals with criminal backgrounds often aren’t adequately tracked due to communication breakdowns between school districts and police departments.

New York City, in particular, may have a political atmosphere that exacerbates the problem, said Betsy Combier, president of the E-Accountability Foundation, a local group that keeps tabs on public school officials. She said New York City school board members often are more interested in hiring people who won’t rock the boat about district decisions than they are about safety.

“[They] want to hire teachers who are new, who they can mold,” she explained.


Teacher Contracts Impede Removal

Perhaps even more vexing than schools’ inability to find predators in the initial screening is the difficulty officials have in removing them once they have been identified. Policymakers often blame teacher contracts that make removing suspect teachers extremely difficult.

According to an April 22 New York Post article, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg blamed the collectively bargained teacher contract for difficulties in heading off predators.

“If you look back in history, [sex abuse is] not a huge scandal. It is unfortunately business as usual,” Bloomberg said, noting that firing teachers is a Herculean task, and because of that, sexual assaults happen far too frequently. “It just goes to reflect the fact that unfortunately at the moment, the city really has little recourse to terminate teachers who abuse their position.”

Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency, an organization that tracks education labor unions, agreed, saying that in districts around the country union contracts require administrators to follow onerous, costly procedures before they can fire a teacher, and hence “when a case is not clear-cut … districts will always side with employees.”


Suspected Teachers Collect Pay

Common Good, a group dedicated to restoring “common sense to American law,” corroborates those conclusions, noting in its November 2004 report Over Ruled: The Burden of Law on America’s Public Schools it can take longer than a year in New York City to oust a bad teacher.

In addition, the New York Daily News reported in an April 22 editorial that school officials can’t actually do the firing. The best they can do is assign suspected teachers to so-called “rubber rooms”—where they are segregated from students but continue to collect full pay—until their case is heard by administrators.


Effort Is Just Beginning

Combier believes the solution to the problem is to close the door on predatory teachers. She said districts should hire a neutral third party, such as an education ombudsman, to investigate allegations of teacher abuse.

In her report, Shakeshaft agreed, saying that in addition to doing things like writing clear guidelines describing inappropriate teacher behavior and meticulously screening new hires, districts should “appoint a case coordinator who handles all incidents of educator sexual misconduct. In the most effective structure, the case coordinator is outside of district control but with regulatory authority within the district.”

Shakeshaft prefaced her recommendation by noting, “[b]ecause so little has been done to prevent educator sexual misconduct … there are no studies of the effectiveness of prevention programs or legislation.” Therefore, any reforms undertaken in the near future will be just the beginning of the effort to combat predators in the nation’s public schools.

Neal McCluskey is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.