They call it “passing the trash,” and it’s a common policy that lets child abusers resign and move to another district

By AMY HSUAN, MELISSA NAVAS and BILL GRAVES

The Oregonian – February 18, 2008

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It would take months for the agency that licenses Oregon teachers to discipline a Salem-area teacher for inappropriately touching at least eight girls.

To get Kenneth John Cushing, then 44, away from Claggett Creek Middle School students immediately, administrators cut him a deal: If Cushing resigned, they would conceal his alleged conduct — clutching students’ waists, touching their buttocks and massaging their shoulders — from the public.

Cushing signed the pact — obtained by The Oregonian through public records requests — with Salem-Keizer Public Schools in 2004, and officials promised not to reveal the teacher’s behavior if potential employers called looking for a reference. They would attribute his departure to “personal reasons,” the document reads, and make “no reference to this agreement.”

Salem’s deal is just one of 47 similar confidential settlement agreements obtained or confirmed by the newspaper.

During the past five years, nearly half of Oregon teachers disciplined for sexual misconduct with a child left their school districts with confidential agreements. Most, like Cushing’s, promised to keep alleged abuse quiet. Some promised cash settlements, health insurance and letters of recommendation as incentives for a resignation.

The practice is so widespread, school officials across the country call it “passing the trash.”

The Oregonian reviewed 767 cases of educator misconduct over the past 10 years in which the state commission revoked or suspended licenses for misbehavior. Sex-related offenses ranked the most common, and in 165 cases the agency disciplined educators for misconduct ranging from touching students or sending them love notes to molestation and rape.

This, of course, is a tiny fraction of the 35,000 educators who teach, mentor and coach in Oregon.

The state Teacher Standards and Practices Commission eventually revoked Cushing’s license in January 2005. He went on to teach at a charter school in Tucson, Ariz., in the 2006-07 school year and drew no complaints or reprimands there, administrators said. He left after one year, citing “personal reasons.”

In August, he started work at Cardigan Mountain School, a private, all-boys school in New Hampshire. Headmaster David McCusker said Cushing didn’t reveal his misconduct in Oregon when he was hired, and background checks revealed nothing.

Cushing declined to comment to The Oregonian. McCusker says Cushing will keep his job there. “We have been pleased with his performance,” McCusker said.

Secret and expedient

Oregon public school officials say an educator suspected of sexual misconduct gives them few options. If they fire the educator, they may face a costly legal battle with teachers union lawyers. Putting an employee on paid leave is also expensive because the commission takes, on average, nearly 16 months to complete investigations.

The Oregonian found that in 2006-07, 28 Oregon educators missed 993 workdays while on paid leave during investigations of misconduct, at a cost of about $350,000 in salaries and hiring substitutes.

Cutting a resignation agreement offers the fastest, cheapest way for a district to push a problem teacher out of the classroom, school officials say.

That’s what the Three Rivers School District did with Stephen John Koller, a 30-year-old science teacher who later admitted to an inappropriate relationship with a 17-year-old senior at Illinois Valley High School.

School officials first notified the state in January 2003 that Koller was under investigation for allegations he was living with a female student.

Initially, the state commission ordered Koller into counseling. Then the Three Rivers school board offered Koller a deal: $10,000 in severance, six months of health insurance and a letter that said, “He is personally committed to his work and will work extra hours to be successful.”

In October 2004, the commission revoked Koller’s license, a decision that prevented him from using his recommendation to apply for work in another Oregon public school.

Koller, who declined comment, never taught Oregon high school students again. He subsequently worked at two community colleges, where administrators say they were unaware of his past sexual conduct.

“(The agreement) happened in a way that was least damaging to the school district and the kids,” says Jerry Fritts, Three Rivers superintendent.

But some school leaders say the widespread practice of cutting resignation agreements risks student safety for the sake of protecting districts from costly legal fees.

“You cannot lie for a teacher,” said Carolyn Ortman, a Hillsboro school board member and former member of the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission. “Just because a teacher isn’t good enough to work in your district, doesn’t mean they are good enough to work in anyone’s district.”

But even Hillsboro has adopted the common practice of providing only dates of employment when another district inquires about a former employee.

“The whole world of reference checks has become a legal arena,” said Hillsboro Superintendent Jeremy Lyon. “You are in a precarious place if you say anything positive or negative about a past employee.”

Michael Morey, a lawyer who represents victims of sexual abuse and has worked on several cases involving teachers, says the “cover-up” denies victims the chance to know they are not alone and shields school officials from accountability.

“Every organization that has an involvement with children should have open transparency and full disclosure when it comes to the abuse of children,” Morey said.

Similar problems with secret deals in California led the state Supreme Court to rule that districts can be sued for such pacts. The decision largely put an end to resignation deals, said Mary Armstrong, a lawyer for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

In 1997, the California court ruled that a 13-year-old student sexually molested by Robert Gadams, a middle school vice principal in Livingston Union School District, could sue for fraud and negligent misrepresentation three districts that previously employed Gadams. Gadams had been repeatedly disciplined for sexual misconduct and received resignation agreements from all three districts.

“The secret deals are one of the main things that keep the wheels greased on the machinery that keeps passing around the molesters,” said Mary Jo McGrath, school law attorney and sexual abuse expert in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Protect pupils, teachers

Oregon’s commission, with its power to revoke licenses, marks the last line of defense in keeping schools free of harmful educators.

But the commission, a professional organization supported by license fees, also tries to serve educators and their interests. Teachers unions helped create the commission in 1965, and nearly all 17 commissioners are teachers or former teachers.

The agency has 2.5 investigators to handle nearly 300 pending cases across the state. It has not invested in additional investigators, despite a $1 million annual carryover, because state lawmakers must approve additional spending, according to Vickie Chamberlain, the agency’s executive director. Until last year, she didn’t ask for additional staff, assuming legislators would deny the request. In 2007, lawmakers approved increasing the staff from 1.5 to 2.5 investigators.

Still, lengthy investigations remain problematic.

In January 2006, Texas officials notified the commission that an Oregon teacher, Neil Martin Abrahams, sent mail to an imprisoned sex offender that included images of boys in swimsuits and information from the North American Man/Boy Love Association.

A commission investigator interviewed Abrahams, a 51-year-old substitute teacher working in four Portland-area school districts, in September 2006. Abrahams “admitted that he had fallen in love with a male student during a prior teaching assignment” in Texas, according to a commission report.

But after the investigator resigned, the case sat among the pending cases until August 2007, when the commission revoked Abrahams’ license.

Abrahams said he taught three to four days a week between the initial complaint and his discipline. He was never arrested or charged with a crime. He lost his license because he admitted to being attracted to children. Abrahams signed the stipulated order, but stated at the time that he didn’t believe the commission’s evidence supported all of its findings.

Much of the commission’s decision-making on teacher discipline is shrouded from public view. The status of investigations is kept confidential, even from school officials. In addition, the commission dismisses about half of the 200 complaints it receives each year.

Those, too, are kept confidential from the public and school officials, under a state law designed to protect innocent teachers from false accusations.

Through public records requests, The Oregonian uncovered two confidential settlement agreements in which the state commission promised not to discipline accused educators if they in turn agreed not to teach in Oregon. In a third confidential settlement agreement, the commission promised not to discipline a teacher publicly after going to mediation.

One of the agreements was reached in 2000 with Glen “Skip” Morris Kinney Jr., an elementary school teacher in the Redmond School District.

Kinney befriended a fourth-grader in his class, whom he took under his wing and treated like a member of his family. The girl said she grew to trust Kinney, even more than her father.

In 1991, when she turned 16 and Kinney was 32, she said, they started having sex. In 1996, following a 14-month investigation, Kinney was charged in Deschutes County with 19 counts of sex abuse. A judge acquitted him in 1999. Kinney acknowledged having sex with the girl, but only after she turned 18, the legal age of consent.

In 2000, Kinney signed a confidential agreement with the state promising to never teach in Oregon again. The deal allowed the state to avoid a contested case hearing. In exchange, the agency would not investigate him, discipline him or enter his name into a national clearinghouse that tracks teachers subjected to state action.

That agreement didn’t keep Kinney from trying to teach again. In 2001, according to Montana school officials, Kinney obtained a license to teach there. Jackie Boyle, communication director for the Montana Office of Public Instruction, says there is no record of Kinney actually teaching in the state. But Boyle also said it is unlikely that Montana school officials ever knew of Kinney’s conduct in Oregon. Montana does not make such settlement agreements.

When contacted by The Oregonian, Kinney said he is no longer teaching and works in construction in Montana.

Chamberlain, who wasn’t the commission’s director at the time, said she can’t comment on the Kinney case because of the confidentiality clause.

However, Chamberlain says such agreements are reached when commissioners recognize educators could pose harm to students, but don’t have the evidence to charge them with misconduct.

“It’s never an ideal situation,” Chamberlain said. “You really have to weigh the risk. The risk could be that a person who potentially is dangerous can be totally free.”

Ortman, who served on the commission for six years, said she rubber-stamped some disciplinary cases, which continues to haunt her.

“There were things in that discipline packet that would break my heart,” Ortman said. “It would make me so angry. In my heart, I believed (the teachers) deserved more.”

Though commissioners say they give student safety high priority, their mission also includes “always save a good educator,” Chamberlain said. Commission members have no written guidelines on appropriate penalties and rely heavily on the recommendations of investigators and Chamberlain.

“Our decision-making is based on the 17 people’s gut feelings,” Chamberlain said. “They usually are right.”

The commission usually gives teachers who touch students or watch pornography on school computers a public reprimand or probation and permits them to keep teaching if they get counseling and pass a psychological evaluation.

Even educators who admit to sexual misconduct with a student sometimes get a second chance.

Robert Philip Carwithen, a music teacher in the Sheridan School District, surrendered his license in 1997 after soliciting sex from a student. He got counseling, and the commission reinstated his license two years later. He now teaches in three schools in the Winston-Dillard School District in Douglas County.

“He’s earned our trust,” said Kevin McDaniel, principal of Douglas High School. “One of the reasons we were willing to take a chance was because he was very forthright about what happened.”

Still, it’s the granting of second chances, secret deals, slow investigations and naive staff that help problem teachers remain in Oregon schools, experts on sex offenders say.

That’s why Sen. Vicki Walker, D-Eugene, sponsored the law passed last year that requires all districts to offer education on child abuse to parents and staff. Walker also sponsored a law that allows the public to see the personnel record of any educator convicted of most sex-related crimes.

Oregon needs to be more aggressive in deterring offenders who rely on secrecy and ignorance, Walker said.

“There is a conspiracy of silence, and we need to blast it open,” Walker said. “No children should be robbed of their childhood by an adult.”

Amy Hsuan: 503-294-5137; amyhsuan@news.oregonian.com
Melissa Navas: 503-294-5959; melissanavas@news.oregonian.com
Bill Graves: 503-221-8549; billgraves@news.oregonian.com