Minnesota Lawmakers Tackle Teacher Ethics Bills

March 06, 2018 10:14 PM

Lawmakers have taken another step toward passing laws they say will better protect children in Minnesota schools by requiring a state regulatory board to immediately report allegations of abuse to law enforcement and preventing individuals with certain criminal histories from obtaining a teaching license.

Three bills introduced in response to recent 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigations advanced through a committee hearing Tuesday morning.

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"We all hold teachers and the people who work in our schools in such high regard and do amazing work, it's unfortunate we have to talk about these rare instances," said Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, who authored one of the bills.

Failure to Report: A 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS Investigation

Loon's legislation would require the Professional Educator Licensing and Standards Board, formerly known as the Board of Teaching, to immediately report allegations of abuse in schools to police.

Last fall, a 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS investigation found the board failed to report at least 17 teachers accused of engaging in sexual misconduct or inappropriate behavior with students dating to the 1980s.

The board previously argued it was not required to report those allegations at the time.

Rep. Jim Davnie, DFL-Minneapolis,  introduced a bill that would clearly identify the board as a mandated reporter.

"If a complaint comes directly to the board ... it's reported to authorities," Davnie said.

Another bill moving through the Capitol would add to the list of criminal offenses that bar someone from obtaining a teaching license in Minnesota. 

In November, 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS identified 17 teachers who were licensed by the board despite having criminal histories involving sexual misconduct, violence, drugs and theft. 

"There were some unfortunate circumstances – people getting licenses that shouldn't," said Rep. Kelly Fenton, R-Woodbury.

Fenton's legislation would add offenses for domestic assault, criminal sexual conduct and embezzlement of public funds to the list of disqualifiers.

RELATED: State Board Failed to Report Teachers Accused of Sexual Misconduct

When it comes to embezzlement of public funds, a lawyer for Education Minnesota says the law should give the state teacher licensing board discretion when it comes to revoking or barring someone from teaching, not a blanket ban.

"One of the more common cases we see are individuals who have mishandled activity funds. Most of the time it's not a grand criminal scheme – it's a few hundred bucks at a time," said teachers union attorney Meg Luger-Nikolai. "It's due to stupidity and lack of training, I'll be totally blunt on that."



Currently, Minnesota requires applicants for teaching licenses to just once obtain a background check, rather than on some recurring basis. 

The proposed legislation would require those checks to happen more often.

RELATED: Teaching Board's Failure to Report Educator Misconduct Sparks Legislative Action

"The background checks every 3 years – that could create a challenge for districts not only potentially financially," said Dr. Gary M. Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, of one piece of proposed legislation. 

As Loon's bill advanced out of committee, she said she would take the issue of cost into consideration as the bill moves forward. 

The board's interim executive director, Alex Liuzzi, has previously said the board welcomes "the opportunity to work collaboratively with legislators" to "clarify and strengthen teacher ethics law."

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Eric Chaloux

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