New laws aren’t stopping public employees from hiding misconduct allegations or investigations

Published: Dec. 9, 2021 at 8:27 PM CST
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Iowa state lawmakers have passed multiple pieces of legislation to stop public employees from hiding investigations or misconduct allegations. But, our KCRG-TV9 i9 Investigative Team learned some public employers aren’t following these laws and employees are taking advantage of a legal loophole to avoid disclosure.

Iowa school districts allow staff members under investigation for sexual or physical assault to resign, rather than face a termination process. Experts say this allows those staff members to work in another school district.

This is Part 2 of our KCRG-TV9′s i9 Investigative Team’s “Pass the Trash” Investigation. You can read our first story on school staff members being able to resign and being able to work in another school.

“Passing The Trash” and Efforts to stop it

The practice is common in school districts across Iowa and the country. In 2019, the federal government called the practice “Passing the Trash”. The term is traditionally used to refer to teachers who sexually abuse students, resign, then find another job with no record of their sexual misconduct. A federally funded study said the practice occurs because district administrators “fear legal liability and tarnished reputations.”

Our i9 Team found the practice of a resignation occurring after allegations of misconduct or an investigation happened, not just in schools, but across different government employers. We also learned those people are able to get similar jobs at a different public employer with no criminal history. Recent changes to Iowa law have tried to make it so whenever a public employee, like a police officer or teacher, does something wrong it becomes public record.

In 2017, the Iowa Legislature passed a bill requiring public employers to release the “documented reasons and rationale” an employee was fired, demoted or resigned to avoid termination. Gov. Terry Branstad, who signed the bill into law, had wanted the bill to become law after not being able to disclose why public employees employment ended.

The law allows anybody in the public, including media and future employers, to understand why somebody’s employment with the state ended. For example, the Des Moines Register was able to learn why a number of different state employees were fired or resigned in lieu of termination in July 2017.

Greg Graver (R), who is the Jones County Sheriff, said there’s a loophole in the law. He said the loophole is a public employee, who believes he might be fired or demoted, can just resign for “personal reasons” and the reasons and rationale are never public.

“If I catch wind this [an investigation] is going on and I just straight up resign, I move, and I didn’t face termination, then it’s not open to open records laws here in state of Iowa.” Graver said.

He also said reference checks don’t give his office enough information about potential new hires. Graver said this results in his office spending a lot of time performing background checks on employees, sometimes relying on social media and local news stories.

“I absolutely would like to know if somebody has been suspended twice for excessive force,” he said. “I don’t have access to that.”

Problems in schools

Iowa tried to stop problematic school employees from moving to a different school district, in 2019 after an i9 Investigation uncovered a teacher accused of misconduct that Linn-Mar let resign quietly for personal reasons. Our i9 Team also learned the teacher faced multiple allegations and teachers complained to
the school about the staff members conduct
.

The Iowa legislature passed a bill, which Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law in May 2019, requiring schools to report teachers accused of abuse or who resign after an allegation of misconduct to the state licensing board within 30 days.

The licensing board, which is called the Board of Educational Examiners, can only accept complaints about licensed teachers. This means other school staff members, like a bus driver duct-taping kids or an investigation into a teacher’s aide sending nude photos to students, are never reported to any agency other than law enforcement. Charges in these types of cases are extremely rare, according to experts.

Other times district administrators just ignore the reporting requirement. Travis Fleshner, who is with the superintendent for the Union School District, said to our i9 Team he had no intention to report a teacher to the board after he resigned during an investigation into inappropriate emails.

Congresswoman Ashley Hinson (R-01), who introduced the bill during her time as a state legislator, ran campaign ads on writing the bill. She said, in a written statement, she hopes the state legislature will continue to look further at the issue after we brought our findings to her.

“The state legislature should continue looking at ways to ensure perpetrators can’t get away with abusing kids at schools,” Rep. Hinson said.

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