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Bills take stricter stance on abuse by teachers

OLYMPIA – Little-known fact: Washington law now says that if a school employee kills or sexually abuses a child, the person must immediately be fired.

But if the victim is an adult – even a 19-year-old, as in one recent rape allegation – the mandatory-firing law doesn’t apply.

A number of state lawmakers, including Rep. Don Barlow, D-Spokane, want to change that. Regardless of how old the victim is, they say, people who commit serious crimes against others shouldn’t be around children.

They also want to add to the list of crimes that trigger mandatory firing and the loss of a teaching certificate. As a safeguard, proponents note, the penalty requires a conviction or guilty plea.

Barlow is sponsoring House Bill 2772, which would add felony indecent exposure to the list. Co-sponsors include Reps. Alex Wood and Timm Ormsby, both D-Spokane.

Barlow said that last fall, a Spokane voter said he’d been subjected to indecent exposure as an elementary school student.

“And it has stayed with him ever since,” Barlow said at a recent hearing. The teacher, he said, was never punished.

“Ninety-nine percent of the teachers are very responsible, but you do have that 1 percent,” said Barlow. He said the change will be valuable as a deterrent.

“When you send your child to school, you feel that that child is going to be safe,” he said.

All the bills share one thing in common: They apply the penalties, regardless of whether the victim is a child or an adult.

In a Tacoma case last year, a middle school principal was convicted of raping a 19-year-old woman in 2004. According to the News-Tribune of Tacoma, Harold Wright Jr. remained on paid leave for months while his case worked its way through court, eventually resigning three weeks after he was convicted. (He’s appealing the conviction.)

The district felt it couldn’t dismiss him and give him more due process,” said Rep. Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup. She’s sponsoring HB 2461.

“Surely the courts of the state of Washington are as much due process as anyone in the state deserves,” she said.

State law also doesn’t include many serious crimes on the list for mandatory termination, said Rep. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma. She’s sponsoring a bill, HB 3103, to add to the list incest, kidnapping and robbery, as well as any felony with a sexual motivation.

Art Jarvis, interim superintendent of Tacoma Public Schools, said the district strongly supports several of the bills. In a recent case, he said, a teacher was arrested for third-degree felony assault against a police officer. Because the victim was an adult, the mandatory termination law doesn’t apply.

The state teachers’ union, principals’ association, school administrators’ association and state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction all say they support the intent of the proposals.

It shouldn’t make any difference whether a victim is an adult or a child, said Charles Schreck, director of OSPI’s office of professional practices.

It’s important, Lucinda Young of the Washington Education Association told lawmakers, to ensure that there’s a clear link between a serious crime and someone’s fitness for working in schools. She said it would be unfair – and likely illegal – to torpedo someone’s teaching career for “something like a barroom brawl, which people get into on occasion.”

The union also objects to a part of McDonald’s bill that would require districts to report any teacher whose contract is not renewed. In many cases, Young said, non-renewals reflect budget cuts, shifts in subject areas, or other factors unrelated to a teacher’s fitness to teach.

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