Tennessee responds to F grade for failing to protect students from sexual predators in schools

Special Reports

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — There’s a big gap between high marks and a failing grade. State school districts received an alarming assessment as mounting reports of sexual misconduct raised red flags.

Tennessee graded out an ‘F’ in a 2016 USA Today investigation into educator-student sexual misconduct in schools. A central focus of that study, the ease at which an employee with a history could move from one district to another

“It was happening, yes,” says Tara Bergfeld, a legislative research analyst with the state comptroller’s office.

There’s a term for it, called ‘passing the trash.’

Bergfeld co-authored a report in 2018, diving into these shortcomings. She found it common for districts to enter into non-disclosure agreements with teachers guilty of sexual misconduct, to get them to leave, quietly.

“They don’t give a positive or negative recommendation, just a neutral, if you go we will confirm your employment somewhere else, and we won’t disclose this,” Bergfeld outlined.

“It was fourth period, fourth block, I can’t remember the conversation, and the next thing I know he said, you look pretty nice naked,” Elizabeth Thomas told ABC’s 20/20, in a 2018 interview.

The Elizabeth Thomas abduction and amber alert, and subsequent 38-day search started with an encounter in a school, in Maury County. A student reported seeing Thomas, kissing Tad Cummins, inside of his classroom.

This nearly coincided with Bergfeld’s investigation, which uncovered several failures statewide, including a significant backlog of cases involving teachers who had been flagged for misconduct allegations. They weren’t being checked.

“It’s easier to see that this is something that could and is happening in Tennessee districts,” says Bergfeld.

But out of inaction has come a considerable response. Last year, the Tennessee legislature passed five laws aimed directly at protecting students. One, outlawed those non-disclosures between teachers and districts. Another added a 30-day timeline, mandating school directors report misconduct, including sexual, to the state board of education.

In September 2018, Metro Schools former head, Shawn Joseph was publicly reprimanded for failing to do this.

“Before, there was no real enforcement behind that, or consequence if a director didn’t report,” Bergfeld says.

In recent months, teo teachers from Gallatin, Douglas Richmond and Robert Ring, and another from Dickson County, Marty Allison, were all arrested for sex crimes.

Even with improved oversight kids will remain targets, so parents must be vigilant.

Data from S.E.S.A.M.E., Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, urges parents to pay attention if a teacher (1) spends unauthorized alone time with a student, (2) frequently compliments a single student, (3) appears to work hard to be likeable, (4) or if a student suddenly displays unusual behavior.

Noticing any one sign, could save a child from becoming a victim.

Since 2018, increased funding from the state legislature has drastically improved the State Board of Education’s backlog of teachers flagged for alleged misconduct.

What’s more, the state of Tennessee has mandated school districts, charter schools, and public and private child care programs, complete criminal background checks every five years for all educators. Previously, criminal background checks were not required to be repeated after a person was hired by a school district.

Schools are also working with the TBI to launch a service called Rap Back. The program allows authorized agencies to receive notification if an employee in a position of trust, like a school teacher or daycare worker, is under criminal justice supervision, or being investigated for a possible crime. This would virtually eliminate the need for repeated background checks.

Because of its high cost, and comprehensive requirements, the TBI is still working toward implementing Rap Back, which could take several months.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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