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INVESTIGATION: How dangerous loopholes in Ohio's education system fail to protect students

Posted: 6:00 PM, Sep 21, 2016
Updated: 2016-09-21 18:37:41-04

A look into the State of Ohio’s school systems and how some educators are becoming repeat offenders, and getting away with it.

An exclusive 5 On Your Side investigation reveals how state education policies fail to protect Ohio students from sexual predators inside their schools.

We found dangerous loopholes allow problem educators to evade detection.

Broken trust

Laraleigh Allen was just 14 years old when her music teacher molested her.

“He knew I trusted him . . . so I think that’s why he chose me,” she said.

During the summer before her freshman year at Riverside High School in DeGraff, Ohio, Allen decided she wanted to join the school’s marching band.

“I wanted to spend more time with my best friend. She played clarinet in the marching band. So I decided I was going to learn,” she said.

John Timothy Shook offered to help. He had been hired to run Riverside’s music program in 2010.

“So I would go take private lessons at the school...and he would teach me how to play the clarinet,” she said.

“And that's when everything went bad,” she said.

At the end of one of her lessons, Shook called her over to his desk.

"He had touched me and made me feel very uncomfortable,” she said.

She continued to attend her lessons. She thought it wouldn’t happen again.

Instead, it got worse.

“No matter how many times I said, ‘No. I don’t want this,’ every time I went back, it happened again,” Laraleigh Allen said.

 

 

 

Educator sexual misconduct

“I'm kind of disappointed with my profession,” said John Seryak.

Seryak is the Vice-President of S.E.S.A.M.E., a non-profit advocacy group working to end educator sexual abuse.

“After all these years, I would think that there would be an outcry, to the nation, and to the legislators, and to our profession...to say this has got to stop,” he said.

5 On Your Side Investigators reviewed the database of every Ohio educator disciplined between January 1, 2015 and July 1, 2016.

We found at least 80 incidents involving sexual misconduct, including 16 charged with sexual battery.

DIG DEEPER

INTERACTIVE MAP: Where did these 608 offenders teach?

 

The incident includes another high school band teacher. Former Lakewood High School employee Nathan Harris, 27, was convicted of sexual battery in November 2014 after MetroParks rangers discovered him having sex with a student at the Rocky River Reservation.

“There's so much more we could be doing, but it's going to be do we have the resolve to do that?” said Seryak.

Our investigative team also found that loopholes in the state’s system leave students at risk.

School officials don’t have to report disciplinary actions involving sexual misconduct to state investigators, unless the teacher resigns or is terminated.

So who makes sure districts report serious issues?

No one.

The Ohio Department of Education does not have the resources to audit every district.

It concerns Seryak.

“There's just too much temptation to cover things up,” he said.

 

 

Timothy Shook

“Passing the Trash”

“It's much less stressful on a district if someone just moves on,” Seryak said.

The practice is known as “Passing the Trash.”  Educators accused of sexual misconduct are allowed to resign amid allegations only to be hired by another district, left in the dark about disturbing allegations.

Take Shook’s case.

“He already should have been in jail,” said Allen.

Before Shook was hired by Riverside, he taught at Covington High School in Miami County.

In 2005, he resigned. In his resignation letter, he said he planned to pursue his master’s degree.

But during his eventual trial for abusing Laraleigh and two more Riverside students, one victim revealed a very different reason for his departure.

The trial transcript said Shook left Covington “when teachers started asking questions” about him having “sexual relations” with another student.

It turned out there were two more victims.

Riverside administrators had no idea when they hired Shook.

 

Slippery slope

“It almost has to be too late before it gets to anybody's attention,” said Candace Risen.

Risen is a psychotherapist who evaluates and treats people who get in trouble for sexual behavior at The Center for Marital & Sexual Health, including many educators.

She said their colleagues often know something’s wrong, but don’t discuss their suspicions.

We found Ohio doesn’t require educators receive training to recognize and report sexual abuse inside schools.

“And I think that's too bad,” she said.

“Because some of these things could have easily been nipped in the bud,” she said.

She said it’s “not uncommon” for her to meet with educators because it’s a “self-selected population of professionals” who end up seeking her out for treatment.

“It's easy to say, ‘Don't have sex with a student.’ Okay. That's a no brainer,” Candace Risen said. “… if you're not self-aware, you can easily be sort of drawn into…something that doesn’t feel like you're harming anybody, even though you've been told it's wrong.”

 

 

Risen said the subset of educators she sees most often is young educators, often closer in age to their students than their colleagues.

She described them as “a vulnerable group.”

They’re often emotionally immature and “have failed to grow into the role of professional.”

Risen said school should teach educators how to avoid the “slippery slope” of inappropriate conduct.

“It's easy to say, ‘Don't have sex with a student.’ Okay. That's a no brainer,” she said.

“It’s a gradual thing. And if you're not self-aware, you can easily be sort of drawn into, by your own vulnerability, your own immaturity, and your own neediness, into something that doesn’t feel like you're harming anybody, even though you've been told it's wrong,” Risen said.

How Ohio protects students

“Our whole office is dedicated to making sure kids are safe in classrooms,” said Lori Kelly, the director of the Ohio Department of Education’s Office of Professional Conduct, which investigates educator misconduct.

Her office’s investigators make recommendations about whether to suspend or revoke an educator’s license.

When asked about districts “passing the trash,” Kelly said she believes most districts report serious incidents of sexual misconduct.

“I think there is a heightened awareness of educator misconduct,” Kelly said. “I think districts are well aware of that and they deal with issues as they come up.”

Kelly also said some districts report incidents involving suspensions, even though they’re not legally required to inform Ohio officials.

However, Kelly acknowledged her office has no system to verify whether districts adhere to state reporting requirements.

“We do not have the capacity to do that,” she said.

Kelley also acknowledged Ohio does have “set training” related to educator sexual misconduct.

“Certainly, in a perfect world, we would like to see some training...and a code of conduct,” she said.

But at the end of the day, Kelly said Ohio has a strong system to remove problem educators from classrooms.

For starters, she said few educators pose problems.

“We know 99 percent of educators are highly ethical,” she said.

Kelley said her office receives multiple referrals when an educator commits misconduct, including schools; police; prosecutors; background checks, and other sources, making it unlikely an educator can slip through the cracks after they’re convicted of a crime.

“We try our best to use every protection the law provides to us,” she said.

Moving forward

“I think the policies have to even get stronger,” Seryak said.

Seryak said Ohio does a “good job,” but said rules about “passing the trash” are too loose.

No state law mandates schools disclose allegations about a previous employee or require districts to ask former employers about misconduct issues.

Seryak also said there is no national educator sexual misconduct database to help prevent teachers disciplined in one state from getting a job elsewhere.

This means there’s also no solid data on how many incidents of educator misconduct occur in the U.S.

S.E.S.A.M.E. documented 496 new arrests of teachers for sexual misconduct in 2015 alone.

When asked if it’s still easy for sexual predators inside schools to slip through the cracks, Seryak responded, “It is.”