Teachers licenses can remain valid despite arrests or sex charges

SACRAMENTO -- Clifford Doty's career in education came to an end when he was sentenced to 27 months in federal prison for sending child pornography over the Internet.

Throughout his criminal case and for months afterward, however, his California state teaching credential remained valid. It was in effect without so much as a notation that its holder had been criminally charged with a sex-related offense.

Doty was arrested in November 2000 trying to meet someone he thought was a 13-year-old girl, a rendezvous he arranged through a chat room called "Widdle Gurls."

After pleading guilty in June 2001, the former Palmdale Unified elementary school vice principal wrote the state credentialing commission himself the following February asking that his license be revoked, which it subsequently was.

Doty's case is among dozens in California uncovered by The Associated Press in which teachers' credentials remained valid even after they had been arrested or charged for sex-related offenses.

In most cases, California law requires quick action — often within 10 days — against educators who are accused or convicted of sex crimes.

During a review of more than 300 cases of sexual misconduct by California educators from 2001 to 2005, The Associated Press found delays of months and sometimes years before the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing took action.

California's data is part of a seven-month investigation in which AP reporters sought records on teacher discipline in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

In some cases, teachers accused of crimes are put behind bars as their cases work through the court system, putting them out of reach of children even if their credentials remain valid. At the time of Doty's arrest, state law did not require that credentials be automatically suspended for Internet sex charges, a legal loophole that has since been closed.

It is those teachers and administrators who remain free and eligible to teach after being arrested that pose the greatest concern. Gauging the extent of that problem is virtually impossible, however, because the state refuses to release the information that would allow the public to scrutinize how long it takes the credential commission to act.

The California Department of Justice provides detailed arrest and conviction reports from local law enforcement agencies to the commission and other state agencies each day. The list is based on names and fingerprints that have previously been submitted for background checks.

But the commission does not rely on the list from the Justice Department to make decisions about teachers' credentials, said Mary Armstrong, legal counsel to the commission.

Instead, the commission seeks to independently verify each of the alleged offenses or charges before taking even preliminary action. That can delay the commission from suspending or revoking a teacher's license for months, or longer, although Armstrong said the typical delay is only a few days.

"We verify the DOJ information by getting court documents. In this day of electronic capabilities, some courts we can find out almost immediately. Other courts, it takes longer," Armstrong said. "We act as quickly as we can."

Justice Department spokesman Gareth Lacey said the arrest reports provided by the agency are credible and come from police and sheriff's departments.

"It's pretty obvious this fingerprint match is a positive identification and it's totally accurate," Lacey said.

It is impossible to assess how quickly the commission acts, however. Citing privacy laws, the Justice Department denied a request from The Associated Press under the California Public Records Act to release the daily reports.

The delays raise the possibility that pedophile teachers can remain in contact with children, even after they have been arrested on sex-crime allegations.

One case attracted international attention last year — that of John Mark Karr, who was arrested in Thailand after falsely claiming to be the killer of child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey.

The former Sonoma County substitute teacher became a fugitive after he was charged in April 2001 for downloading child pornography.

Yet it was not until April 2002, a full year after he was charged, that Karr's teaching credential was suspended. It was another year before the commission finally revoked his license.

If Karr had applied for a teaching position anywhere else in that first year, a check of his California credential would not have revealed any problems to a potential employer.

Armstrong, the commission's legal counsel, said it was Karr's flight from justice that delayed action by the commission, allowing him to keep his license longer.

"It was held up because he was a fugitive," she said, noting that his flight forced an administrative review of his case. "That took longer than it should've. ... He got kind of an unintended benefit because he was a fugitive."

Once teachers have been convicted of a serious crime, the law is less specific about when the credential commission must revoke their license, requiring only that it act "forthwith."

Armstrong acknowledged it can sometimes take months for courts to report the details of criminal convictions. The commission is further prevented from taking action until the verdict is considered final, which can mean further delays during sentencing and appeals.

The lag between the time teachers are arrested and when the credentialing commission takes action can be critical for another reason. Like other states, California submits the names of those who have had their licenses suspended or revoked to a nationwide registry.

The registry is used by most states to review applicants for teaching positions. While the commission waits for the confirmation it desires, those teachers can move elsewhere and apply for new jobs.

Sen. Jack Scott, D-Pasadena, said it is essential the state act quickly to get these teachers out of the classroom, even if the investigation is ongoing.

"I'm concerned, if indeed, that perhaps the turnaround time is not as the law required," Scott said. "Not only does a law like this remove people from teaching, but when that happens ... it's also prevention."

Scott wrote the law requiring school districts to quickly report crimes by teachers and others to close reporting loopholes.

In a critical audit last year, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst's Office recommended that some of the credentialing commission's authority be relinquished to other state education agencies. It called the commission's system "extremely complicated and nuanced, inefficient and riddled with redundancies, poorly integrated and largely unaccountable."

But the idea of eliminating an entire state agency failed to gain traction with education supporters, said the legislative analyst's education director, Jennifer Kuhn, who wrote the 2006 audit.

Recently, the commission has been praised for clearing backlogged credential applications and making state-mandated changes to reduce bureaucracy.

"I think the state has done a good job in the last five years in streamlining certain areas. This area of misconduct may be one of the areas that hasn't had the kind of attention that some may think is necessary," said Sal Villasenor, legislative advocate for the Association of California School Administrators.

On the Net: To search for a teacher's credential status, go to: https://teachercred.ctc.ca.gov/teachers/index.jsp

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