11 Md. sex offenders certified to teach

State audit faults officials in safeguarding children

June 24, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

State education officials failed to revoke the teaching certificates of 11 convicted sex offenders and have not implemented adequate safeguards to prevent convicted criminals from working in schools, according to a legislative audit released yesterday.

The audit of the Maryland Department of Education was conducted by a watchdog agency that reviews all state departments every three years. None of the 11 sex offenders was working in a Maryland public school at the time auditors learned they were still certified to teach, but some could have been working in private schools, the audit said.

The findings come a week after the revelation that a teacher was permitted to keep working at Govans Elementary School in Baltimore for a year after pleading guilty to cocaine possession. That teacher, Martius Harding, was a convicted thief before he was hired by the city school system in 2002.

State Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick took issue with the audit yesterday, saying it is the responsibility of the employers - local school systems - to ensure that teachers, principals and other employees do not have criminal histories. But she acknowledged that the process of checks and balances needs improvement.

The state legislative auditor, Bruce A. Myers, said the state education department is "ultimately responsible" for Maryland's schools. While education department officials say they can't monitor the backgrounds of the tens of thousands of teachers, Myers said they can make some of the same checks that auditors did, such as matching the teaching certification database against the state's sex offender registry.

"It's the safety of the children," Myers said.

Grasmick said she plans to establish a closer relationship with the state police to monitor the registry.

The audit also found ineffective procedures to ensure that people with positive drug or alcohol tests were prohibited from driving school buses. And it found lax state oversight of the results of school bus safety inspections.

The education department disputed both those findings.

Auditors referred to the attorney general's criminal investigation unit questions over the spending of $1.5 million intended to provide vocational education to Baltimore high school students in 1999-2002. Among the issues: A city school employee told auditors that a summer training program for which the education department provided $70,000 over two years never took place.

The audit did not specify where the sex offenders had previously worked. In seven of the 11 cases, local school systems failed to notify the state when the employees were convicted of sex offenses. In four cases, the local systems did notify the state, but the state failed to revoke the teaching certificates promptly. For example, the state received notice of one teacher's conviction in August 2003 but did not terminate the certification until June 2005.

Certification termination notices have now been issued to all 11 teachers, state officials said.

Grasmick noted that the state has 70,000 certified teachers. "When you look at 11 cases, out of probably more than 70,000 people, it's still a very good track record," she said. "If there's one, it's not good enough, but it still has to be placed in context."

The audit was conducted by the state Department of Legislative Services' Office of Legislative Audits. Auditors reviewed records from February 2002 to June 2005. Previous audits of the education department have also found lapses in criminal background check procedures, and officials have argued over who is to blame.

Local school systems are responsible for conducting background checks, including FBI fingerprinting, on prospective employees. The state verifies that systems have conducted the checks when it receives a teacher's application for certification. But the state never sees the results of the checks - an effort, education department officials say, to protect applicants' privacy and avoid duplicating work.

In the case of Harding, who taught a fourth- and fifth-grade special education class, state officials said they never received a certification application. So they had no way of knowing he had been convicted in West Virginia in 2001 of participating in an elaborate fraud using credit cards on the Internet.

Grasmick said the state has recently purchased technology that will enable it to do a better job of catching teachers who have not applied for certification, another issue mentioned in the audit.

"We have to work harder with our school systems," she said. "We have to ensure that we get the information, and we have to be rigid about following up if we don't."

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