City kept teacher even after learning of her criminal past

Despite board policy, convicted felon taught for nearly 15 months

May 12, 1999|By Stephen Henderson | Stephen Henderson,SUN STAFF

City school officials knew in February 1998 that teacher Janyce Dyson had a rap sheet spanning 20 years in three states.

They knew her past included convictions for theft and other financial crimes, and they knew that Dyson, a science teacher at Fort Worthington Elementary in East Baltimore, was on probation for defrauding a local Hecht's store of more than $20,000 in 1996.

But, for nearly 15 months, none of Dyson's supervisors did anything to stop her from teaching, despite a school board policy designed to purge felons from the system's payroll.

The director of personnel and the area executive officer deferred the decision to Harold Borden, then the principal at Fort Worthington. Borden took no action against Dyson for her crimes; but, at the end of the year, he transferred her to William Paca Elementary -- without notifying her new principal of her criminal past.

It wasn't until Dyson, originally hired by the district in 1987, was arrested May 3 and charged with violating her probation that she was suspended. She could be fired, school officials say, pending an investigation by the system.

That Dyson avoided any personnel action for more than a year raises questions about the system's efforts to get criminals out of the classroom.

Some school officials say that Borden acted properly and that principals can determine whether to take action against felons on their instructional staffs.

Members of the school board, which instituted background checks on all employees two years ago, counter that their stance is firmer: Under most circumstances, crooks should not work in schools.

"Our policy is that we don't employ felons," said Ed Brody, the board's point person on personnel issues. "Now, that doesn't mean someone who did something a long time ago and has rehabilitated themselves can't work as a janitor or something in the schools. But, in general, we don't want criminals working in classrooms."

Since January 1998, at least five felons have been found working in city schools -- including one who was hired in the early 1990s even though then-superintendent Walter G. Amprey knew about his criminal past.

The school board has dismissed the other felons it has uncovered, Brody said. He said that the system is investigating the circumstances that led to Dyson's continued employment, and that appropriate actions will be taken.

Hearing a rumor

School officials say Dyson's criminal history came to the system's attention in February 1998, after then-Area Executive Officer Sandra Wighton heard a rumor about it. She contacted the director of personnel, who asked School Police Chief Leonard Hamm to investigate.

Within three days, Hamm says, he unearthed Dyson's 20-year criminal history, including convictions for theft, credit-card fraud and writing bad checks. Hamm said Dyson's criminal activity took place in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

A check by The Sun with local courts turned up a 1996 conviction for Dyson's role in an elaborate scheme involving "[credit] card misuse and grand theft."

Working as a cashier at the Hecht's store in Towson between Nov. 17 and Dec. 16, 1995, court records say, Dyson was caught on camera giving away merchandise without collecting money and charging other items with a stolen credit-card number. In all, she cheated the store of $23,186.16.

A search of her house after her arrest turned up $1,273 worth of the merchandise, according to court documents. She was convicted on three counts of theft over $300, received a seven-year suspended jailed sentence and was ordered to repay $20,864.71.

Dyson was arrested last week for violating her probation in that case. As of February, court records show Dyson had repaid $1,900 of what she owed. She remains in custody at the Baltimore County Women's Detention Center in Towson; her bail is set at $21,282 cash. No court date has been set.

Communication breakdown

Hamm said that in February last year, he relayed the information about Dyson's past to the director of personnel and Wighton, who told principal Borden about it. "That's all I'm supposed to do -- check it out and get the information back to them," Hamm said. "The decision is theirs."

Borden decided not to fire Dyson, said system spokeswoman Vanessa Pyatt, because her crimes did not affect her ability to teach and did not pose a threat to students. Pyatt said it was a "breakdown in communication" that led to Borden's not telling Dyson's new boss about her crimes after he transferred her.

Borden was later demoted for reasons unrelated to Dyson. Wighton, the area executive, was later promoted to director of secondary schools for the system. She did not follow up on Dyson's case, either.

Pyatt said Wighton and others had the "proper level of concern" about Dyson. "The process worked the way it was supposed to work, except for the new principal not being notified," Pyatt said. "Principals have the right to decide whether a criminal record means someone shouldn't be teaching or not."

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