Database of misbehaving teachers gains momentum in Oklahoma

Published 7:00 am Friday, April 10, 2015

OKLAHOMA CITY — Support is growing, including from state Superintendent Joy Hofmeister, to create a database of teachers accused of misconduct with students.

Sen. John Sparks, D-Norman, wants the Department of Education to keep a list of accused teachers that districts can check before hiring someone.

Superintendents may voluntarily submit names of teachers who were fired or resigned to the database, along with details of an incident. Implicated teachers will be notified and given a chance to submit a response, which potential employers could review.

“This whole thing will only work if there’s a general level of reliable reporting throughout the state,” said Sparks, noting that district leaders will have to decide if there’s reason to report someone. He plans to protect such whistleblowers from liability.

Sparks said the bill is finding support — including from educators who’ve approached him in hopes of stopping teachers accused of inappropriate behavior from so-called “district-hopping.”

Sparks said he feared as recently as last week that his bill would meet the same fate it did last year, when the proposal passed both chambers only to die because lawmakers couldn’t settle on final wording.

A spokeswoman for Hofmeister said she supports the current proposal — and what it aims to accomplish — in its present form.

A more high-profile plan by Sen. Kyle Loveless, R-Oklahoma City, had similar aims but would have required a state investigator to probe allegations against teachers.

That proposal was scuttled amid criticism from state education officials who panned it for expanding government. There were also concerns that an investigator might re-interview child victims who are often given special protection by law enforcement.

A teacher shortage in the state is believed to make it easier for accused educators to dodge allegations against them, by moving into districts that may be unaware of their past.

The state does not track those who’ve lost their licenses due to misconduct with students.

“I don’t want to shove a punitive bill down the throats of the teachers,” said Sparks, adding that he believes “teachers would want to weed out bad actors, also.”

Senate Pro Tem Brian Bingman said Sparks’ proposal is “evolving.” He noted it has stirred some “concerns” including how to handle allegations against teachers who’ve not been convicted of crimes, and balancing privacy rights.

Sparks agreed that he isn’t looking to create “witch hunts” or a tool for personal vendettas.

“We know that can happen. But we also know that you have bad actors who skip around,” he said.

A teacher accused of embezzling money is fired immediately — even if charges aren’t filed, he noted. Accusations involving misconduct with students, he said, should be treated with the same seriousness.

It is also illegal to level false allegations against educators, he noted.

“This is the safety of our children, and the reasonable investigation into the people who are dealing with our child day-to-day is an ongoing, legitimate concern,” he said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Statehouse for CNHI’s Oklahoma newspapers.