School districts commonly let staff members under investigation resign, hide accusation history from future employer

Published: Dec. 8, 2021 at 6:48 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Iowa school districts allow staff members under investigation for sexual or physical assault to resign, rather than face a termination process. Our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team learned the practice is common in school districts across Iowa.

The practice hides the allegation of abuse and criminal investigation from the public. Multiple experts said resignations hide those allegations and investigations from future employers. This results in an employee under investigation being able to receive a job in another school district.

Background checks aren’t perfect

Earlier this decade, Iowa’s legislature passed a law requiring all school district employees to have a background check. The law covers all school employees, including part-time workers.

Elizabeth Jeglic, who is a clinical psychologist who studies sexual abuse at John Jay College, said background checks don’t tell schools about a potential hire’s full past, like an investigation.

“They would only pop-up on a background check if charges were filed and they were found guilty,” she said. “Otherwise, those things don’t pop-up on background checks.”

Jeglic said the only way employers could know about an investigation, which didn’t result in a guilty verdict or charges being filed, is through a reference check. Our i9 Investigation Team learned those references could be potentially useless for district administrators or hiring managers because sometimes districts will enter into “resignation agreements.” Those agreements often have terms restricting what a former employer can say about an employee in a reference check.

For example, according to a resignation agreement signed in April, the Union Community School District can only give the dates of a teacher‘s employment ‌if‌ ‌another‌ ‌employer‌ ‌contacts‌ ‌the district ‌for‌ ‌a‌ ‌reference. The teacher was accused of an inappropriate email exchange with a student. Yet, he received a payout of $15,000 to resign on top of his remaining salary for the school year plus benefits.

Jelgic said school staff members under investigation aren’t always given the opportunity to resign. However, she said school districts might choose the resignation route because these allegations are difficult to prove and the process to fire an employee is lengthy.

“But, generally, a lot of these cases are ‘he said, she said,’ and so they are hard to prosecute,” Jelgic said. “And so in an effort to get the person out of the situation, they ask them to resign.”

Travis Fleshner, who is the superintendent for the Union School District, said in April the timing was one of the reasons the district decided to use a resignation agreement.

‌”There are‌ ‌several‌ ‌considerations‌ ‌that‌ ‌would‌ ‌go‌ ‌into‌ ‌that‌ ‌[resignation‌ ‌agreement],”‌ ‌he‌ ‌said in April.‌ ‌”You‌ ‌know‌ ‌with‌ ‌any‌ ‌agreement,‌ ‌you‌ ‌look‌ ‌at‌ ‌timing,‌ ‌several‌ ‌considerations‌ ‌and‌ ‌the‌ ‌board‌ ‌just‌ ‌decided‌ ‌that‌ ‌would‌ ‌be‌ ‌their‌ ‌best‌ ‌path‌ ‌forward.”‌‌

Fleshner said the resignation was a personal decision and not in lieu of termination. This means the school district doesn’t have to give the reasons and rationale for the resignation. While resignations don’t stop criminal investigations, details of those investigations rarely become public without charges.

For example, our i9 Investigative Unit found three different search warrants tied to the investigation of the Union school teacher. However, our i9 Investigative Team still doesn’t know why the police opened an investigation into the teacher. Three search warrants tied to the case remain sealed indefinitely and police denied our open records request for more information saying it is part of an ongoing investigation. The investigation started about eight months ago.

Investigations are sealed and can suddenly stop

Investigations into school staff members are usually sealed. Law enforcement agencies often cite pre-trial publicity as a possible way to jeopardize an investigation or affect the ability to hold a fair trial. Our i9 Investigative Team learned this first-hand after we ran a story about an investigation in Clayton County back in March.

The Clayton County Attorney’s Office told TV9 the Clayton County Sheriff’s office was investigating a possible sexual incident between a staff member and students in the Clayton Ridge Community School District. Our i9 Investigative Team has followed the case over the past year.

An application for a search warrant, which we received as an open court record, said a teacher’s aide in the Clayton Ridge School District was sending “obscene images of herself nude to male high school students under the age of 18.” The application also said the teacher’s aid had sexual intercourse with minors.

Investigators couldn’t recover the photos, according to the document. However, a deputy with the Clayton County Sheriff’s Department said interviews with classmates confirmed the images existing. They were described, according to the warrant, as fully nude breasts and buttocks. The warrant also said a minor engaged in sexual intercourse with the teacher’s aide after communicating with her on Snapchat.

According to school board minutes from the Clayton Ridge School Board, the aide’s resignation was accepted at a special board meeting on March 3, which is the same day complaint was originally reported to the Guttenberg Police Department.

Shane Wahls, who is the superintendent for the Clayton Ridge School District, declined to talk with our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team on-camera. However, he wrote in an email the aide resigned earlier in February with her last day being February 26.

“At the time the District accepted the employee’s resignation, the District had no credible information that would have resulted in the removal of the employee’s resignation from the Board’s agenda,” Wahls wrote. “In addition, the employee already had quit working for the District, was not going to return to work with the District, and has not returned to the District.”

He wrote the district immediately notified law enforcement and cooperated with the investigation.

About eight months later, no charges were filed. Zach Herrman, who is the county attorney for Clayton County, said victims stopped cooperating and leads on the case ended once our original story in March was published. The case was sealed once our i9 Team asked the courthouse clerk for additional documents. The original case can no longer be accessed on Iowa Courts Online.

Decision on prosecuting school misconduct cases

Prosecutors, like county attorneys, often have the ultimate decision on charging school staff members in a court of law.

Elizabeth Jelgic said unless there is video evidence or adult witnesses, it is hard to prosecute these types of cases. She said there are a number of different reasons why including a parent’s ability to put their child through an investigation, media involvement, social pressures, and a child’s credibility testifying against an adult.

”It’s often the child’s word versus an educator’s word,” Jelgic said. “And one of the things we see especially with people within institutions who engage in sexual abusive behaviors is they have very good reputations. So you could probably have 99 people who say wonderful things about that and one person who says ‘they did this to me’.”

When video evidence does exist, charges being filed are still not a guarantee. In March, a Tri-County School District bus driver was allowed to resign after allegations were made she duct-taped kids on a school bus. Misty Ruggles, who had multiple kids on the bus, said she was allowed to see a video of the bus driver duct-taping children. She said her child has developed a fear of going back on a bus.

Amber Thompson, who is the county attorney for Keokuk County, said an investigation with the Keokuk County Sheriff’s Office found the driver did duct tape children. But, she decided against charging the bus driver because her intentions and circumstances surrounding the incident didn’t rise to the level of a crime.

Thompson declined an on-camera interview about her decision and told our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team in an email she didn’t want to talk about the case further.

When we originally published the story in May, Thompson wrote in email that duct-taping students is inappropriate, but proving it as a crime is “difficult.”

“The investigation revealed that the duct taping appeared to be done in fun at the request of the children and removed quickly, all while children were laughing or smiling,” she said in an May email to TV9. “While this behavior certainly was not appropriate, I believe it would be difficult to prove she committed a crime.”

Months later, the same bus driver was offered a job driving preschool kids at Seida Head Start until parents complained. An official from the school said the pre-school uses a separate bus company to find bus drivers for the school. The school said it asked the company to switch drivers, which it did. The bus company said the employee passed a background check.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to add additional details about how Seida Head Start hired bus drivers.

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