Are schools enabling abuse?

Arrests mirror problems at other institutions
Three former teachers arrested in 2012 in connection with sexual relations with a student are (l-r) Mark Pleasanton, who taught at Glasgow High School; Andrew Chrzanowski, who taught at Caesar Rodney High School; and Charles Coursey, who taught at Sussex Tech. ARTWORK BY CHRIS FOSTER
August 31, 2012

Everyone agrees illegal student-teacher relationships are a problem, yet little has been done to stop them.

Following two high-profile teacher arrests and despite some talk of addressing the issue at the beginning of this year's legislative session, lawmakers left in June without changing a thing.

State Rep. Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, has sought to address the institutional aspect of teacher/student sex crimes – which can be compared to what has happened in the Catholic Church with pedophile priests and at Penn State University during Jerry Sandusky's tenure. Closer to home, Beebe Medical Center faces a class-action suit for not doing more to stop pedophile pediatrician Earl Bradley.

Lavelle wanted to allow parents to sue the state if their child was abused, opening the state to civil lawsuits in cases where teachers have engaged in illegal relationships with students. Under existing law, victims are prohibited from suing the state. Lavelle's bill was kicked around in the state legislature before dying in committee last session.

"You have to change the civil law because it would have such a staggering impact on institutional behavior and institutional failure," Lavelle said.

Targeting institutional behavior would force public schools to self-correct and self-report illegal activities between teachers and students. If the threat of a lawsuit loomed over a school district, it would force the district to have a good defense or their insurance would pay for it, Lavelle said.

David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, knows a thing or two about institutional behavior. His group has worked relentlessly to bring justice to children abused by pedophile priests.

Clohessy's group now focuses on enablers who know illegal activity is going on, but who do nothing to prevent it.

"The supervisors, principals, superintendents – every individual who stays silent can be deterred," he said. "There will always be predatory coaches and teachers. It's the organizational culture that allows them to abuse 44 kids not four."

He said his group opposes the system allowing convicted priests to continue receiving pensions, although that opposition has done little to change to number of priests receiving pensions.

"Priests virtually never, ever lose their pension. They only lose benefits when they are formally defrocked, and that's rare," Clohessy said.

The Catholic Church has justified pension payments to pedophile priests as an act of Christian charity; two wrongs don't make a right, he said.

Penalties no disincentive

Existing criminal penalties, fines, the threat of losing one's teaching license and ultimately one's profession should be enough disincentive to prevent student/teacher relationships, said State Sen. Joe Booth, R-Georgetown. But much like the death penalty has done little to stop murder, strict laws – often accompanied by mandatory prison time –have done little to stop teachers from sleeping with their students.

"I'm not sure how you can make it any more severe than to say don't do this anymore," he said.

Booth said he is an advocate for proactive measures such as professional development and informational forums to combat student/teacher relationships. He said he doesn't believe schools have addressed teacher-student relationships to the extent districts have promoted anti-bullying programs.

When a teacher is arrested for an illegal activity with a student or a crime against a school, Booth said, the school should use a stand-down method similar to what the military does to address problems.

"You go through the proper procedures and preventative measures, look at what went wrong, examine the warning signs and make everyone pay attention to the issue at hand," he said. "If they want to get rid of this scourge, then they need to take it to staff and students and say this is proper, this is improper."

Examining the pension system and how it applies to convicted employees, however, remains an option, say both Booth and Lavelle.

"Could it act as a deterrent for some guy who's 20 years in and says, 'Gee, I could lose my pension?' It's worth a look," Lavelle said.

Both legislators agree there may be no way to change pensions retroactively so that convicted employees lose their pensions, but going forward for new employees, change is possible.

"I can't imagine that you couldn't say if you are convicted of X, Y or Z crimes and go in knowing that, that you will forfeit your pension," Lavelle said.

"Should someone who's a state employee and is convicted of a significant crime while they're employed lose their pension? I say let's have that discussion."

Pensions, benefits for convicted educators could reach $500,000 annually

Earlier this year, the Cape Gazette submitted a Freedom of Information Request to the Office of Management and Budget requesting information on salaries, years of service, pensions and retirement benefits for 32 educators convicted or currently in the court system.

Pension and retirement information for state employees is protected under Delaware Code; only salary and years of service are public information, said Robert Scoglietti, director of policy and external affairs.

Of the 32 requests analyzed, half would qualify for pension and retirement benefits based when they were hired, which vested employees in the state pension plan after five years; 15 teachers originally identified did not work the five years required to be vested. One's record was expunged.

House Bill 81 passed in 2011 raised the vesting time to 10 years for employees hired after Jan. 1, 2012. The bill also increased the employee contribution from 3 percent to 5 percent for salaries of $6,000 or more. None of the records analyzed are affected by the 2011 law.

Of the educators eligible for pensions and benefits, only two are 62 or older – the age required to receive a full pension. The state offers provisions for early retirement, which would reduce monthly pension payments; adding survivor benefits decreases payments slightly. Convicted teachers who have a disability can also receive payments and benefits before retirement age.

Since pension and disability information is protected under state law, this analysis assumes the eligible educators qualify for and will receive a state pension some time in the future.

Using the state pension calculator, payments range from a high of $35,382 annually to a low of $2,253. If all those identified receive a pension – which by all indications they are entitled to –the total annual cost to the state would be about  $200,000. That cost could increase to close to $475,000 annually when factoring in healthcare benefits. There is also a one-time death benefit of $7,000 for survivors of state retirees, which reduces a pension check by a few dollars for those opting for it.

While privacy laws preclude the public from knowing the exact costs, Delaware taxpayers could be paying nearly $500,000 in pensions and benefits to convicted or charged educators, depending on how many are receiving a pension and benefits during any one year.

Costs can vary depending on when these educators retire and how long they or their families continue to receive benefits.