Tenn. system sometimes misses teachers fired for sex misconduct
By BILL POOVEY
Associated Press Writer
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) - Middle-school teacher Steven Craig Fults was allowed to resign quietly after he was investigated in 1999 for looking at pornographic Web sites of teenage boys.
His problem in DeKalb County public schools didn't prevent Rutherford County, just 30 miles away, from hiring him to teach seventh grade and coach the soccer team.
In 2004, Fults was convicted of raping a male teenage student at the Rutherford school. The judge who sentenced Fults to 45 years in prison said he methodically preyed on a teenager who had attention deficit disorder and no contact with his father.
The case shows that teacher sexual misconduct in Tennessee has sometimes gone unnoticed by the state, particularly if the incident does not become a criminal investigation and school administrators decide to keep it quiet.
The Associated Press examined records from the State Board of Education that showed Fults was among 50 educators whose professional licenses in Tennessee were denied or revoked from 2001 through 2005 for sexual misconduct.
Fults didn't come to the state's attention until after he was charged in Rutherford County. The AP review found that those 50, including 15 whose misconduct happened in other states, were among 120 educators whose licenses were revoked, suspended, denied or surrendered for misdeeds ranging from theft to falsifying professional scores.
Tennessee's figures were gathered as part of a seven-month investigation in which AP reporters sought records on teacher discipline in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
Across the country, sexual misconduct allegations led states to take action against the licenses of 2,570 educators from 2001 through 2005.
That figure includes licenses that were revoked, denied and surrendered. Young people were victims in at least 69 percent of the cases, and the large majority of those were students.
Nine out of 10 of those abusive educators were male. And at least 446 of the abusive teachers had multiple victims.
There are about 3 million public school teachers in the United States. Tennessee has only one person to handle misconduct complaints at the state level.
Those investigations are assigned to state school board attorney Rich Haglund, along with his other duties. Since April 2006 school directors have been required to report serious ethical violations within 30 days of a suspension, dismissal or resignation.
Records show 136 investigations of complaints against Tennessee-licensed educators were started in 2006, with 119 completed.
Through Aug. 30 this year, 121 investigations were started and 106 finished. Kentucky and Georgia are among states that have professional standards agencies to investigate complaints of teacher misbehavior, including inappropriate relationships.
Those agencies use investigators and hold training sessions for school employees on professional conduct.
Haglund said Tennessee has nothing like that now, but he said such an agency could be created using teacher licensing fees.
Currently, teaching licenses are free in Tennessee. Kentucky Education Professional Standards Board Director Phillip Rogers said his agency has seven investigators, a full-time staff and an attorney and looks at "more than 2,000 cases a year."
Rogers said he has met with Tennessee officials about creating such a board. "Rich (Haglund) does a real good job with the resources he has," Rogers said.
"When you've got one person, part-time, he doesn't have an investigative staff, that really restricts them on what they can do."
Tennessee lawmakers have shown little enthusiasm for creating a new state agency, and the Tennessee Education Association's president said a new investigative agency is not needed.
"Kind of a witch hunt is what we are concerned about," TEA President Earl Wiman said. Wiman said the state already "has a very good process in place for teacher licensure revocation ... I think we are doing more than some states."
If complaints about teachers become criminal charges, penalties vary greatly.
In Hamilton County, a judge in 2002 sentenced former high school health and wellness teacher Shirley Anne Smies to 60 days in jail and six years probation on a statutory rape conviction stemming from a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old female student.
In Warren County, a popular elementary school teacher with beauty queen looks was arrested in 2005 for having sex with a 13-year-old male student.
After Pamela Turner served a six-month jail sentence and was released on probation, she violated a court order forbidding contact with the teen and his family when she sent what the judge described as "lewd" videos of herself.
The judge ordered Turner to serve the remainder of an eight-year prison term. Laural Nutt, a prosecutor in Murfreesboro, said Fults never had to threaten his victim.
"That's how a lot of this stuff happens," she said. "Kids are looking for guidance. If someone represents they are really cool, they say, 'You can talk to me about anything and I have the trust of your parents,' and it starts."
She said the Fults case started with "showing pornographic tapes to the child, and it's tapes of men and women and then two guys."
"They know who to pick," Nutt said. "They honestly believe they are helping these kids and they don't think they are doing anything wrong."
The teen victim's mother says her son remains devastated and needs emotional help. "He was humiliated. There were signs put at school, signs with his name, just because he turned the SOB in," she told the AP.
"My son is in jail because he drinks to forget. He just turned 21 in jail."
The AP isn't naming the mother or her son because of a policy not to identify victims of sexual crimes.
The mother said her son wrote in a pending application for addiction treatment that he drinks to "hide the pain and fit in the life I feel has been stripped away from me ... I was sexually assaulted by a coach-teacher for two years.
I have hardly gone to counseling because my family could not afford it. He haunts me in my dreams and I lash out when I drink.
To this day it still affects me and the people around me." The victim's mother said that while her son had some good teachers, "they need to have better background checks.
Fults slipped by because nobody wrote it down. It could have been flagged. My son was raped on their watch because they didn't pay attention."
Her federal lawsuit against Fults and Dekalb and Rutherford county schools said officials should have known Fults was dangerous.
A jury verdict in 2006 awarded damages from Fults totaling $8.5 million, which the teen's mother said she never expects to see.
She said the complaint against the school systems has been delayed by a technicality and an appeal is pending.
"The graphic nature of some of the Web sites accessed on the Fults classroom computer would have caused a reasonable individual to be concerned that Fults could well have posed a danger to teen aged boys," the suit says.
A sheriff's investigation ended with a decision to not pursue any criminal charges against Fults.
DeKalb County school officials have said Fults had no complaints on his record when he left for the job in Rutherford County.
Administrators in both school systems declined comment. "A lot of these guys can get away with this for a long time before they get caught," said George Boles, a spokesman for the FBI in Memphis.
Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, said Congress should be involved in providing uniform laws.
"Some states don't have any laws," she said. Every state should "prohibit the conduct, report to a central database and hold those who fail to report criminally liable."
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)