RALEIGH — In an interview with North State Journal, North Carolina State Superintendent Catherine Truitt discussed a bill filed to increase penalties for teacher sexual misconduct with students, the reporting requirements in the measure, as well as the related impact on a teacher’s license.
House Bill 142, the “Protect Our Students Act,” was filed on Feb. 16 by Reps. John Torbett (R-Gaston), Kristin Baker (R-Cabarrus), Jake Johnson (R-Polk), and Keith Kidwell (R-Beaufort).
The bill would alter the penalty for committing a sexual activity with a student from a Class I to a Class G felony. A Class I felony has a sentence of three to 12 months whereas a Class G felony can be an eight to 31 months prison sentence. The penalty for taking indecent liberties with a student also is raised from a Class I to a Class G felony. Additionally, if a school official fails to report a teacher engaged in misconduct to the State Board of Education they can be charged with a Class I felony.
A bill making some technical changes was introduced and received a favorable report from the House K-12 Education Committee on Feb. 21, at which time Truitt spoke to the committee about the measure.
During her remarks before the committee, Truitt said that there had been 124 instances of sexual misconduct involving students resulting in teacher license suspensions and revocations between Jan. 1, 2016, through Oct. 11, 2022.
“On average, this is 20 suspensions, revocations, or surrenders a year that are related to sexual misconduct involving students,” Truitt said. She added that number does not include education employees who are non-licensed, such as substitutes, bus drivers or coaches.
Truitt confirmed those numbers to North State Journal, reiterating that the State Board of Education (SBE) does not have jurisdiction over local hiring and firing issues and only has authority for suspending or revoking licensed teachers, as well as the bill’s increased penalties covering non-licensed staff misconduct.
The superintendent also said there are at least 50 arrests of school personnel “currently facing charges, have charges pending, or who are actively being investigated by local law enforcement for sexual misconduct against students.”
“Then, of course, we saw a decrease during the pandemic,” Truitt told North State Journal, adding that most education employees “didn’t have access to the kids” during that time frame.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know,” said Truitt. “So let’s use this as an opportunity to elevate the issue so that we can do a better job of communicating with districts and we can make sure we’re coding these correctly in our own database; that we can make sure that what happens in law enforcement is making its way back to us.”
An analysis by EducationNC found 240 licenses had been revoked between 2016 and 2022, with 143 of those revocations involving indecent liberties with a student or child.
The process for revoking a license is arduous and there are nine grounds under which a revocation can take place, one of which includes the required 30-day notice scenario. However, having resigned, the teacher in question is no longer in the employ of the state and has constitutionally protected due process rights.
In other words, the case has to be adjudicated before action can be taken on the license.
Sometimes a teacher’s license expires or lapses during the time it takes for any given criminal case to be decided in the courts and that’s an issue the bill seeks to address, according to Truitt.
“That creates a problem and we can’t do anything when the license lapses,” Truitt said. “That’s part of what this bill will do; is that if their license lapses, there’s no action that I can take against them, or the Ethics Committee, because it’s expired. So, what can I do now?”
She added that “When it [the license] does lapse, they would have to reapply and there would be a criminal conviction on their record and they would not get another license.”
In terms of maintaining the database of revocations and suspensions, Truitt said she thinks her agency has done a good job but said she thinks “we can do better.”
In terms of investigating teacher misconduct by her agency, the work mainly falls on a single paralegal.
“This is going to have to be something like a budget item,” said Truitt about increasing capacity to investigate cases. “I think that any time there is legislation that requires the State Board to investigate anything or DPI to investigate anything having to do with teacher misconduct, we need more manpower.”
Background check laws are the main way states catch potential criminal issues at the time of hire.
If a background check doesn’t reveal an issue and the teacher fails to make disclosure to North Carolina officials, they are required to come before the Ethics Committee which falls under the superintendent’s office.
Each of the state’s 115 districts performs background checks when hiring, however, the process for the checks may vary from district to district. It’s also unclear if the districts repeat that check on a regular basis.
“I guess if the legislature wanted to mandate it that it run through the state instead of the local board policy, they could do that, but it’s one of those things in North Carolina that’s a local decision,” Truitt said when asked if background check policy and procedures should be homogenized at the state-level.
North State Journal asked if her agency had considered utilizing the school safety reporting app “Say Something” in place in a number of the districts, Truitt said she had already put the wheels into motion last September.
The app now has a button called, “inappropriate misconduct by school personnel” that students can use to report any unwanted behaviors coming from an adult. Truitt also said she expects to get some data out of the Say Something app about teacher misconduct.
The app could also be useful for collecting anonymous tips related to grooming of students by school employees, especially if the video mentioned in the final section of House Bill 142 gets made.
Under the bill, the Center for Safer Schools will create an informational video on child abuse and neglect, but that also addresses grooming. Public school units would be required to show the video to students in grades 6-12.
“Well, I will tell you that the video is my idea,” said Truitt. “What I was picturing in my mind was if this is mandatory the first week of school when all the housekeeping is being done and that video is part of that first week of school… And what I was imagining was the teachers watching it with the students and so that one teacher, maybe they’ll see that video and know, ‘Oh, these kids know. They’ll know what I’m trying to do’.”
Truitt said she believes equipping students with information that is not from the possible perpetrator, but from a third party, i.e., the video, is the most effective and efficient way to teach students how to recognize the [grooming] behavior that’s happening.
“I think that grooming is hard to recognize in the moment,” Truitt said. “It’s sort of like grooming is the sum total of the exchanges that occur between a minor student and an adult.”
She added then when she looks at the screenshots of the texting with the grooming behavior, “it’s very calculated on the part of the adult. You can see it unfold.”
The superintendent also said grooming may not be a conversation that parents are necessarily having with their children.
“This entire issue is not what people think about when they think of school safety; they think of gun violence, which I understand,” said Truitt. “That’s because we’re not talking about the U.S. Department of Justice work that says that as many as one in ten may – before they graduate – may have been the victim of sexual misconduct.”
The report, “A Case Study of K-12 School Employee Sexual Misconduct,” was produced in September 2017 by the Magnolia Consulting for the Department of Justice.
The major findings included the one in ten estimate mentioned by Truitt but also that employees with one-on-one access to kids are more likely to be offenders.
“On average, a teacher-offender will pass through three different districts before being stopped, and one offender can have as many as 73 victims in his or her lifetime (GAO, 2010),” according to the report.
Additionally, the report posits that employees who are popular or even cited with awards and honors are likely to be offenders and only an estimated 5% of incidents known to school employees are reported to law enforcement, despite Title IX and other legally required reporting of sexual misconduct incidents.
Hesitancy by staff to believe an incident occurred and administrators fearing media and public responses were listed as barriers to reporting. The report also says, “District leaders were hesitant to address school employee sexual misconduct.”