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Oregon Legislators Work On School Sex-Abuse Laws March 17, 2009

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

The seventh-grade girls in Mark Leichty’s science class at North Albany Middle School said he knelt by their desks, put his arm around their shoulders and let his hand slip down near or on their breasts.

Leichty said he knelt beside the girls to talk to them privately and rested his arm on the back of their seats. He may have inadvertently touched their shoulders, he said, but he didn’t touch their breasts.

During a five-day hearing two years ago, the case boiled down to the teacher’s word against his students. A wrong decision would either unfairly ruin a man’s career or expose teenage girls to a sex offender at school.

Leichty’s case illustrates what’s at stake as legislators craft new laws to try to improve school defenses against educators who sexually abuse children. Lawmakers have drafted seven bills to try to resolve the same questions that confront administrators: What teacher conduct constitutes a boundary violation? What is necessary to prove misconduct? Should unproven allegations be included in personnel files?

Lobbyists for teachers, administrators and school boards are meeting with lawmakers to try to resolve those questions.

"Yes, we want to protect the schoolkids of Oregon, but we also want to remember the teachers have rights too," said Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, member of the House Education Committee.

One measure under consideration is House Bill 2062, which would bar administrators from making deals to conceal an educator’s misconduct in exchange for his or her resignation. The Oregonian documented 47 secret agreements and described the practice, known among educators as passing the trash, in a two-part series last year.

Administrators sometimes resorted to confidential agreements in cases clouded by doubt. A teacher, for example, would be charged with improperly touching students without solid evidence. Or teachers would violate student boundaries with personal comments, suggestive notes or inappropriate invitations, yet commit no crime.

The simplest way to get such teachers away from students is to persuade them to resign. So administrators sometimes offered to keep the accusations against educators secret, even write recommendation letters, if they would leave quietly.

Salem-Keizer School District in 2004, for example, cut a secret deal with Kenneth John Cushing, then 44. Administrators wanted to get him away from middle school students while the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, the agency that licenses and disciplines teachers, investigated allegations that he inappropriately touched at least eight girls. Officials promised not to reveal his behavior if potential employers called looking for references.

Legislators want to ban such deals without violating the rights of teachers

Sexual misconduct "is a career ender for educators," said Chuck Bennett, Lobbyist for the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators.

Mark Leichty can testify to that.

On Feb. 11, 2004, his 43rd birthday, he was called into the vice principal’s office and told he was being charged with touching the breast of a girl in his science class.

"That absolutely devastated me," he said. "I didn’t even know who it was."

His problems started in the previous year, when three female students complained that he touched their breasts. One would later say he rubbed her back and shoulder but did not touch her breast.

Leichty denied touching any girl improperly. His vice principal, however, warned him in a letter that "touching of any kind that makes a child or staff member feel uncomfortable is inappropriate."

The letter gave weight to the charge he faced a year later on his birthday from a female student who, with several misspellings, wrote:

"He lend over me and put his left arm on my shoulder. Next he slid his hand closer to my brest. Slides hand down to brest above nibl."

Leichty said he did not touch the girl’s breast, but he did try to befriend her in class as part of a mentoring program for which he volunteered.

In March 2004, Leichty was arrested and charged with eight counts of first-degree sexual abuse based on accusations of improperly touching the girl and other female students during the previous school year.

His teaching days were over.

More than a year passed before the Benton County district attorney’s office dismissed criminal charges against Leichty. By then, parents of two of the girls he was accused of touching had filed a civil suit against him and the district. All parties settled out of court for undisclosed terms.

Then in 2006, the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission charged Leichty with gross misconduct and prepared to yank his license. He exercised his right to an administrative hearing.

During the five-day hearing in October 2006 in Salem, detectives, school administrators and three middle school girls testified against Leichty. Sixteen people, including many fellow teachers, parents and several students, defended him.

The judge noted that during depositions for the civil case, the girls’ accounts of "when and how often the touching occurred differed from their initial statements and complaints."

After hearing the arguments, the judge recommended Leichty be reprimanded and put on probation for two years, which would have allowed him to return to the classroom. He had a clean record after 17 years of teaching, with consistently positive evaluations and praise from many students who admired him, the judge said.

But the teacher standards commission concluded there was a preponderance of evidence showing Leichty improperly touched students "on or near their breasts," warranting the revocation of his license.

Leichty now runs a plant nursery that he started on the Albany farm where he grew up. He could apply to renew his license. He’s even had job offers from other schools.

But Leichty said he isn’t ready to go back into a classroom. False allegations, he said, have cost him his career, his reputation and tens of thousands of dollars in earnings.

"How do we protect people in my position?" he asked. "Because the reality is there are mistakes that get made."

That question has complicated several bills the Legislature is wrestling with. Senate Bill 48 would make it a felony crime, rape in the third degree, for any school employee to engage in sex with a student, even if the student is 18, the age of consent, or older.

Legislators are amending that bill so that teachers would lose their licenses for having sex with an older student, as most do now, but not go to jail, said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee where the bill is expected to be introduced.

Senate Bill 45 mandates that an educator suspected of a boundary violation could not work directly with children in a school, community college, university or child care facility until the charge is investigated. Now it is possible for suspected educators to keep teaching while they are being investigated, said Vickie Chamberlain, executive director of the teacher commission.

That bill will be merged with House Bill 2062, which would not only ban secret deals but also allow parents to sue any district that concealed the misconduct of an educator who abused their child, said Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, chairwoman of the House Education Committee. The House bill also will be broadened to apply to all school employees, not just licensed educators, she said.

"My commitment is that we are going to pass a bill out," Gelser said. "The primary thing is it is going to keep kids safe. And we are going to do it in a way that doesn’t end the career of educators who actually didn’t do anything wrong."



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