June 25, 2008
When Teachers Leave Abruptly, Parents in the Dark
By JOHN P. KELLY
COHASSET - It was a simple question: Howie Altholtz wanted to know why his daughter's social studies teacher at Cohasset High School resigned abruptly in the middle of the school year.
It had slipped out unofficially that the popular teacher had been captured on a school surveillance video doing something inappropriate.
When the administration refused to give Altholtz a clear answer, Altholtz, a lawyer with an anti-establishment streak, made it his mission to find the truth.
In crusading for answers, Altholtz walked into a thicket of conflicting rights and interests.
In Cohasset and across the country, school officials say the privacy of teachers, even those involved in misconduct, is protected by law. Some parents, however, aren't buying that when it comes to their children's safety.
Last fall, an investigation by the Associated Press found 2,570 educators in the United States whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered or sanctioned from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct. The reporters found school administrators had made behind-the-scenes deals to avoid lawsuits and showed that discredited teachers managed to get rehired in different school districts.
His own year-and-a-half campaign for answers in Cohasset has led Altholtz to question why two other teachers there were, in his words, quietly ushered out during the past three years as rumors of their "creepy" classroom behavior percolated among students and their parents.
And other parents have joined him in drawing parallels between Cohasset Superintendent Denise Walsh's handling of questionable teacher conduct and her role in forcing the resignation of a teacher in Middleboro, where she was school superintendent. Nothing was said to the community there; the former teacher continued seeing students as a private tutor and he was charged with raping a 15-year-old boy weeks after he left the school system.
In Cohasset, a small school system with 1,500 students, anxiety over what the public is entitled to know when it comes to teacher misconduct endures in some quarters although there hasn't been even a whisper of any misconduct involving teacher-student sex.
"The system in general is fairly broken," Steven Fusco, vice chairman of Cohasset's school committee, said in an interview. Legal privacy standards complicate the efforts of school districts to fully vet the teachers they hire, he said, and be forthcoming with parents concerned about their children's safety.
As if to illustrate the point, Fusco declined to discuss particulars of the three former teachers whose departures Altholtz has questioned, saying he was fearful of breaching their privacy rights. But he did say one of the teachers was asked to leave the system last year amid concern over inappropriate behavior.
"The problem I have is the larger one: he now is no longer near my children, but he may be near someone else's," Fusco said.
In an interview in his Boston law office, Altholtz, 53, said he has been given no official explanation of the circumstances that led the three teachers to leave the district. He has made repeated inquiries by e-mail, requested public records and even wrote an opinion piece in the local weekly newspaper in which he chastised the school district for being "too squeamish to tell the truth."
"Parents deserve to know what's happening in their children's classroom, especially when it comes to teacher misconduct," Altholtz said.
Superintendent Walsh said she has "tremendous respect" for parents' right to know but on this point, she said, the law is clear: The reasons that lead a teacher to resign, even when disciplinary in nature, are protected under privacy laws.
"I can promise you no one was a risk and remained in the classroom," Walsh said in an interview.
Sally Ayers, 45, a mother of two, said her daughters had classes, separately, with two teachers Altholtz said had been ushered out. One was a longtime teacher who resigned; the other a long-term substitute who was not asked to return.
"All of the sudden there's another teacher in front of the class, without explanation, and there's a classroom of kids speculating," Ayers said. "No information: it breeds fear."
In the case of Altholz's daughter's social studies teacher, who resigned in January 2007, the state Department of Education identified him as Scott Newkirk and said his license to teach has been suspended for three years because of allegations that he downloaded pornography onto a computer at school.
Further, the state said investigations resulting in restrictions on a teacher's license are public information. Altholtz said no one in Cohasset schools bothered to tell him that.
Newkirk, reached Friday, denies he downloaded anything inappropriate on his school computer. Administrators said they found a picture of Britney Spears and photos of "scantily clad women," he said.
When asked to sign an admission that he downloaded the images, he refused.
Newkirk was told he was entitled to a public hearing, but decided the only way he would ever be able to teach again would be to resign. He is now working for his brother-in-law at a private business.
"It's the kiss of death," he said. "They might as well have said I touched a student."
Newkirk said after another teacher was forced to resign about six months before him, the teachers complained to the administration about computer security, saying that other people, including the cleaning staff and students, may have had access.
He said he asked the administration to show him the times and dates when the images were accessed, but they said they weren't able to do that.
"I gave that school 150 percent of my life for 20 years," he said. "If they think for one second I was willing to throw it away for access to that garbage, I'm better off not being there."
Newkirk said he told students who asked why he resigned that he "had a disagreement with the superintendent over school policies."
Newkirk said if a teacher is forced to resign, it should be made public. He hesitated when asked if he considered himself forced.
"I could have fought it," he said. "I felt after talking to my family it would have caused more damage."
Children in danger
The lawsuit against Walsh and the town of Middleboro has not yet gone to trial.
The victim's family filed the lawsuit late in 2006, three years after the crime, accusing the Middleboro schools of failing to warn parents that a math teacher, Gregory Pathiakis, had been forced to resign after he was caught entertaining students at his apartment and sending them e-mails of a personal nature.
Pathiakis, 24 at the time, began tutoring and within weeks had been arrested for raping a former student after taking the boy to a hockey game and getting him drunk.
The year before, Pathiakis had been forced to resign from Pope John XXIII High School in Everett after just six weeks on the job for online misconduct involving students. That job was not listed on his resume when he was hired in Middleboro.
Fusco, the school committee member, said he is working with state Rep. Garrett Bradley, a Hingham Democrat, to draft legislation that would empower school districts to conduct more thorough background checks before hiring teachers. Bradley said the law would let districts share information regarding teacher misconduct by shielding them from privacy lawsuits.
Information about school administrators who leave their jobs because of allegations of misconduct is also difficult to come by.
In Quincy, a top school administrator and former high school teacher, Frank J. Moffett, resigned in 2005 with no public explanation. Moffett, then director of curriculum for the district, voluntarily surrendered his teaching license to the state after a woman told district officials of a sexual relationship she said she and Moffett had when she was a student of his at Quincy High School in the mid-1970s.
The woman, Carol Adler of Mattapoisett, later testified in front of a legislative panel in favor of a bill that would make it a crime for teachers to have sex with students younger than 18. It is legal in Massachusetts for a school employee to have sex with a student as long as the student is at least 16. In more than half the other states, it is illegal for an educator to have sex with a student.
Efforts to talk to Moffett in February when Adler testified before legislators were rebuffed and efforts to reach him Friday were unsuccessful.
John P. Kelly may be reached at [email protected]
Originally published by By JOHN P. KELLY, The Patriot Ledger.
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