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Reporting teacher arrests raises tricky issues

Should school districts be required to inform parents when a teacher or school employee is arrested?

The State Board of Education has been wrestling off and on with that question since last spring, and members were reminded Wednesday morning just how complicated the issue is.

Chair Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, has been pushing the idea, partly because of incidents that the Poudre School District didn’t report but which later became public.

Schaffer has proposed a regulation that would require parents be notified if a school employee is arrested or charged for any felony, misdemeanor offenses involving children, sexual behavior or indecent exposure or for drunken driving. Notice would have to be made regardless of whether the alleged offense was committed while the person was working.

The board took testimony on the proposed rule last April, but a vote has been held off for more discussion and research. Schaffer convened Wednesday’s hearing as an informational meeting.

“This is just a study session,” Schaffer said, stressing that he welcomes further input.

The board heard lengthy testimony from Department of Education officials, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, a prosecutor, education groups and others. Here are the highlights of what members heard:

State laws conflict. Arrest records are public and have to be released by police, but other parts of state law require CDE to forward CBI arrest information to school districts but forbid the department from releasing it to the public.

Any changes in confidentiality requirements “would have to be addressed by the General Assembly,” said Tony Dyl, an assistant attorney general who advises the board.

Current data is incomplete. Every person who applies for a teaching or other professional education license is fingerprinted. Based on that, the CBI reports weekly to CDE any arrests that match the educator database. But, the system doesn’t necessarily pick up arrests on municipal, out-of-state or federal charges.

“You have a system set up based on Colorado … so it would not give you any of this other data,” noted Steven Jensen, chief deputy district attorney in Jefferson and Gilpin counties.

Data is split up. While CDE has the database of licensed educators such as teachers and principals, district are responsible for background checks and monitoring of classified staff from janitors to bus drivers.

“I just think the information gaps are problematic,” said Bruce Caughey, deputy executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives. He noted that the system as it exists “would never have been designed” from scratch.

The current system can require a lot of work. Additional reporting requirements could impose further burdens on CDE and districts, some witnesses said Wednesday.

Jami Goetz, CDE director of licensure, said the department has more than 350,000 names in its database, ranging from people who started the application process but never finished it to retirees. About 50,000 are active professionals. The department gets anywhere from 10 to 200 notices of arrest or charge each week from CBI, which must be reviewed and also sent to districts.

About 200 licensees a year require investigation, she said, and about 40 educators are referred to the board every year for revocation or changes in their licenses. (Not all of those cases involve criminal activity.) Goetz said statewide statistics aren’t kept on the number of educators who voluntarily give up their licenses.

Board member Angelika Schroeder, D-2nd District, asked if CDE has any way to segment the 350,000 names to for easy review. Goetz said the current database doesn’t allow that, nor can it be linked to the new unique teacher identifiers.

Philosophical issues aired

Bob Schaffer, chair of the State Board of Education / File photo
Bob Schaffer, R-4th District, chair of the State Board of Education

Schaffer said, “The one group left out of the [information] loop is the taxpayers [and] the people whose kids are actually in the classroom.”

Marti Houser, general counsel of the Colorado Education Association, said, “Our concerns relate to the constitutional and statutory rights of our members, not that we don’t care about the children. … If we are moving to a process … of reporting every arrest, that would be very unfortunate [and] a huge burden for the Department of Education.

“There aren’t very many educators being arrested … very, very few are convicted or plead guilty” to crimes, she added.

But Greg Romberg, lobbyist for the Colorado Press Association, argued, “Records should be open unless there’s a compelling reason for them not to be.”

The issue and the proposed rule were sparked by incidents in the Poudre School District.

A former paraprofessional at a Poudre middle school was arrested last November in a sexual crime involving a student. The district didn’t inform parents of the arrest until after administrators learned the case was about to be reported in the local media. And, the district never gave notice of the September arrest of a Poudre High School teacher for providing liquor to two students.

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