published Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

Teachers' misconduct revealed: Hundreds have been disciplined in last decade, Tennessee records show

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Drinking on field trips.

Sex with students.

Sending lewd Facebook messages.

Those are all things that can -- and have -- cost Tennessee teachers their licenses. And the number of teachers facing disciplinary action by way of a revoked or suspended license is on the rise.

A Times Free Press review of a decade's worth of Tennessee suspensions, revocations and reprimands found:

• Some 160 Tennessee teachers have been disciplined for crossing the line with students or other minors since 2004. Some were caught sending inappropriate messages. Others were found to have had sexual relationships with their students. And many lost their ability to teach after being convicted of crimes such as child abuse or statutory rape.

• At least 113 have faced suspension or revocation of their teaching license after possessing or consuming alcohol, marijuana, prescription pills or cocaine at school, school events or on field trips.

• And about 30 have been disciplined for offenses such as cheating on licensure exams, breaching testing security protocol, falsifying student grades or altering transcripts.

In all, records show the Tennessee State Board of Education has taken action against 434 teachers in the past 10 years. And the trend is upward. In 2005, the board disciplined 33 teachers. In 2013, the number was up to 51. With 2014 not yet at its midpoint, the board has taken action against 27 teachers.

Out of all those cases over the course of a decade, only one involved educator incompetence.

Those who have been disciplined are only a tiny minority of Tennessee's 65,000 public school teachers. But advocates say those cases, particularly those involving sexual misconduct, come at a high cost to vulnerable children. And some estimates indicate that as many as 1 in 10 students will be the victim of educator sexual misconduct by the time they graduate high school.

And data show teachers are increasingly failing to maintain appropriate boundaries, as the proliferation of social media facilitates continual communication between teacher and student.

But records from the state board -- the body that suspends and revokes teaching licenses -- show that such discipline isn't always meted out evenly. One teacher may have a license suspended for a year, while another loses his for good, for a similar offense. In many cases, even those subjected to state board disciplinary action are later able to re-enter the classroom.

A pair of Hamilton County teachers show the complexity of those licensing decisions.

Jennifer Mitts, a former Red Bank High School teacher, resigned on March 14 after school officials confronted her for taking a student to the doctor during school hours. She had been warned before, and her personnel file shows several reprimands and a suspension for issues ranging from excessive absences to improper handling of money and insubordination.

Likewise, Ooltewah High School teacher Jason Hamrick resigned in February after at least 10 instances of complaints, warnings and formal reprimands over his nearly 15 years of teaching there. Hamrick made some students perform manual labor at his home. He spent the night in a hotel room with students on a school trip. And he was accused of talking to an individual about masturbation and inappropriate touching.

At next month's state board meeting, Mitts is expected to receive a one-year license suspension, and Hamrick is expected to receive only a reprimand, meaning he's still allowed to teach.

Dannelle Walker, general counsel for the state board of education, said Mitts warranted a suspension because of her repeated warnings. But she said the board did not have enough evidence against Hamrick -- who was also cited for insubordination over the years -- and wouldn't be able to defend a suspension or revocation if the case went to court.

"We felt like Mr. Hamrick still had the ability for rehabilitation and that a reprimand would send that message," Walker said.

•••

Having a teaching license revoked or suspended affects a teacher's ability to work in all of Tennessee's 1,700 public schools. But such disciplinary action could impede someone's ability to practice teaching in any American school.

Teachers can lose their licenses for a variety of reasons, but state officials say more and more teachers are getting called out for crossing the line with students, whether it's sending inappropriate messages or engaging in sexual relationships.

"I notice an overwhelming trend in boundaries," Walker said. "The harm is a symptom of the issue, which is that some educators are not recognizing the appropriate boundaries between teachers and students."

But there are other reasons, too.

In 2009, the board revoked the license of Sullivan County teacher Gregory White for embezzling $5,000 in band money.

Cleveland teacher Anthony Burgess received a one-year suspension in October 2013 after he admitted to drinking on the job "once or twice" to take the edge off.

And the board suspended Campbell County teacher Karen Bundren's license for two years in July 2012 after she was caught submitting fraudulent transcripts claiming she earned a doctoral degree from the University of Wyoming, when in fact she had never enrolled or obtained a degree there.

Walker said the state takes a hard line against teachers who cheat, steal or have inappropriate relationships with students because they disgrace the field.

"It is a very small percentage," Walker said. "Most teachers are doing exactly what they're supposed to do and even going above and beyond. That's why this work is so important, because we don't want to taint the teaching profession at all."

And none taint the profession more than those who endanger students, said Terri Miller, president of the national advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation, or SESAME.

Tracking of such cases is poor, Miller said, but it's clear that too many teachers get away with sexual misconduct. Statistics gathered by school attorneys show that perpetrating teachers will have offended a minimum of three times on average before facing punishment. Oftentimes, those teachers are allowed to quietly resign and go on to teach in other school systems.

And that puts students at risk, as researchers estimate one in 10 students will be victimized by some kind of educator sexual misconduct.

"That amounts to approximately 4.5 million children enrolled in school today," Miller said. "That is an epidemic in my way of thinking."

One such case involved Hamilton County teacher Andrew Wilkinson, who created a fake Facebook account, complete with a fake name and a photo of a young boy, to shield his identity while pursuing a former student. He tried to meet up with the sixth-grade girl, figure out where she was living and where she was going to school. School officials reported "grave concern" with Wilkinson's language, as he called the girl "pretty" and "beautiful," said he "never thought I (sic) miss a student like I miss you," and wished that he "was 13 again so I could go to homecoming with you."

In July 2013, his license was suspended for two years. The board said reinstatement was possible if he successfully completing educator boundary training.

Nashville teacher Arthur Hurst resigned in 2013 after sending a 14-year-old male student inappropriate text messages and Facebook messages. The teacher's messages involved penis size, masturbation and other sexual topics, according to state records. Hurst was allowed to resign instead of facing formal misconduct charges. The State Board suspended his license for three years, allowing it to be reinstated after completing educator boundary training.

Miller, of the SESAME group, said social media and texting are causing more problems between teachers and students. People will text or type something that they won't say in person. And many teachers are lacking training in appropriate boundaries online, she said.

"Policies need to be very strict in what kinds of communication is allowable between teachers and students," Miller said.

Stacy Stewart, Hamilton County's assistant superintendent for human resources, said the proliferation of texting and social media is blurring the lines for everyone.

"We can all of a sudden be in contact with each other instantaneously 24/7," she said. "I think lines have been blurred, not just in the education realm, but in all of society."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249.

about Kevin Hardy...

Kevin rejoined the Times Free Press in August 2011 as the Southeast Tennessee K-12 education reporter. He worked as an intern in 2009, covering the communities of Signal Mountain, Red Bank, Collegedale and Lookout Mountain, Tenn. A native Kansan, Kevin graduated with bachelor's degrees in journalism and sociology from the University of Kansas. After graduating, he worked as an education reporter in Hutchinson, Kan., for a year before coming back to Chattanooga. Honors include a ...

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