LAS VEGAS — Duane C. Johnson turned up in southern Nevada nine years ago, a school recruiter's lucky break. He was a former high school football coach from Utah, game to work with the most troubled students here in Nevada. When a job opened at Child Haven, a shelter for neglected children, school administrators did not hesitate to send him over.
Within a year, however, a 13-year-old girl at Child Haven stepped forward to accuse Mr. Johnson of repeatedly exposing himself and groping her.
Only then, the local school administrators said, did they learn what really propelled Mr. Johnson from his last job in Utah: accusations by school officials that he had impregnated a student there in her senior year. Although Mr. Johnson contended that the relationship began three weeks after the girl graduated from high school in late June, she gave birth to an eight-pound baby the February after her graduation, and an inquiry resulted in the loss of Mr. Johnson's Utah teaching license.
"Had I known that, I would never have moved him to Child Haven," said Matthew Lusk, principal of schools for Clark County's juvenile courts. "They're the most vulnerable kids there."
Clark County's experience is hardly unusual. When teachers are accused of sexual abuse, educators and law enforcement authorities say, districts often rid themselves of the problem by agreeing to keep quiet if the teacher moves on, sometimes even offering them a financial settlement. The practice, called passing the trash, avoids the difficulties of criminal prosecution or protracted disciplinary proceedings.
But districts on the receiving end of such transactions have begun suing the originating districts for civil damages when the teacher abuses again. So have the victims. Legislatures are also starting to crack down, mandating fingerprint and criminal record checks of teachers and protecting employers who give unfavorable references from lawsuits.
While no central authority tracks the number of teachers accused of molesting in one jurisdiction who then pick up teaching in another, Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of education administration at Hofstra University, studied 225 sexual abuse complaints against teachers made to federal authorities from 1990 to 1994 and found that in only 1 percent of the cases did superintendents follow up to ensure that molesting teachers did not continue teaching elsewhere. In 54 percent, superintendents accepted the teachers' resignations or retirements. Of the 121 teachers removed this way, administrators knew for certain that 16 percent resumed teaching in other districts.
Julie Underwood, general counsel for the National School Boards Association, acknowledged that allowing those accused of molestation to leave districts without a mark on their record was morally questionable. But she said school principals often did not have the time required to pursue disciplinary actions.
"It may take an entire week of time at hearings to dismiss a teacher," Ms. Underwood said.
The receiving states, educators say, also shoulder some of the responsibility. With nationwide teacher shortages, states face pressure to provide credentials to teachers swiftly and may overlook warning signals on employment records.
That explained, in part, how Mr. Johnson ended up teaching in Nevada, where he is awaiting trial on charges of felony lewdness with a minor. He has denied wrongdoing. The school superintendent in Provo County, Utah, where Mr. Johnson was previously disciplined, did not respond to a request for comment.
Whatever measures states are taking, cases crop up repeatedly around the country. In 1998, the trade paper Education Week compiled a list of 244 cases involving accusations of school sexual abuse that were then making their way through courts and disciplinary hearings. It concluded that teachers accused in one place were likely to have been accused elsewhere before.
Educators acknowledge the problem persists despite recent efforts:
¶In July, Melissa Ann Daw, a high school teacher in Escambia County, Fla., will go to trial, accused of lewd conduct with a 15-year-old former student. According to the Escambia sheriff's office, Ms. Daw drew similar accusations at her last teaching job, in Mobile, Ala., but left with glowing references from her former boss. She has denied the accusations.
¶Last year, Steven Nowicki, a teacher in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., was sentenced to a minimum of 14 years in prison for molesting two brothers, 8 and 10 years old, in their home. Mr. Nowicki arrived in New York from a private school in Connecticut, which had fired him over sexual abuse accusations but gave him excellent recommendations, said Christopher Meagher, a lawyer representing the victims' families in civil suits against both the sending and receiving schools.
¶In February, a fourth-grade teacher, Jason Abhyankar, 28, was convicted of molesting three boys 9 to 11 years old at two California elementary schools. According to testimony at his trial, Mr. Abhyankar was fired from his job at the first school, Huntington Beach Elementary, where he had been accused of sexual abuse, but he left with a letter of recommendation.
No federal laws bar schools from permitting teachers accused of sexual misconduct in one jurisdiction from resuming teaching in another jurisdiction, but in recent years, state legislatures have moved to address the problem. At least two, Michigan and California, bar school districts from settling charges against teachers by promising to keep accusations of abuse secret.
Largely in response to the abuse problem, 36 states now require teachers to be fingerprinted, though only half of those demand both state and national criminal record checks to license or hire teachers. Twenty-three states revoke a teacher's license automatically for felony convictions involving sex with children.
As of 1998, at least 26 states had passed laws explicitly protecting employers who give unfavorable references from defamation lawsuits. In addition, a national bulletin board, run by the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, lists teachers whose licenses have been revoked or suspended, but reporting is spotty, said Roy J. Einreinhofer, the association's executive director.
For every loophole for vetting teachers that states seem to have closed, said Lt. Tom Monahan, the former head of the Las Vegas Police Department's sex crimes unit, others go unnoticed. The required background checks typically go through the Federal Bureau of Investigation, covering felonies, but sexual abuse charges are often reduced to misdemeanors in plea bargaining, he said.
Laws mandating that "credible" accusations must be reported to the police or child welfare authorities leave leeway for educators to remain silent, allowing them to claim insufficient proof. In addition, because teachers at private schools are usually not licensed, credentialed teachers forced out for sexual misconduct in public schools often migrate to them, law enforcement officials say.
Dr. Shakeshaft, basing her figures on an analysis of nine independent studies, estimates that 15 percent of the country's 50 million schoolchildren will be sexually abused by a teacher or other school employee. Only 7 percent of abused students, she said, report what happened. Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation, a nonprofit group based in Nevada, said victims felt doubly betrayed when their molester was allowed to move on unpunished.
Employers also refrain from giving negative references out of fear that teachers will sue for defamation. They contend that unless charges are proved, it is unfair to deprive a teacher of future employment. Though generally unsuccessful, defamation suits are regularly "used as a threat" by teachers accused of abuse, Ms. Underwood said. Still, in recent years, school districts that free molesters have faced a countervailing threat of lawsuits by later victims and the districts that the molesters have moved to.
In California, a 13-year-old student accused her school's vice principal of abuse and successfully sued both his current and former school districts. In a 1997 ruling on that case, the California Supreme Court said that former employers must disclose information that is "potentially relevant to the employee's fitness to perform the subsequent job."
If Duane Johnson's hiring here showed less than full disclosure on the part of school officials in Provo County, state officials here have acknowledged that it also revealed carelessness on Nevada's part.
Mr. Johnson arrived in Nevada with strong letters of recommendation from his last job. He acknowledged that his Utah teaching license had been revoked but said he was challenging the action. Nevada officials did not investigate.
In 1999, the head of Nevada's teacher licensing authority learned about the sexual misconduct accusation in Utah and tried to revoke the Nevada license. But the state attorney general here stopped the effort, citing insufficient legal grounds, since the Department of Education had known that the Utah license had been revoked.
One point, however, was never in dispute. Whatever Nevada's teacher credentialing office knew about Mr. Johnson's record, its officials never told those in Clark County, who hired Mr. Johnson. Dr. Lusk said Clark officials called Mr. Johnson's last school in Utah and were told only good things about him. The disclosure of his past, in news accounts after his arrest, outraged school officials in Clark and prompted them to draft new, tougher questions for checking references, said Lina Gutierrez, the school district's executive director of license personnel.
Oddly enough, Mr. Johnson's reason for leaving Provo City High School in Utah was amply covered in the local news in the early 1990's. His previous employer would have faced no liability in disclosing the accusation.