Rape, or “Boundary Violations?” Minnesota’s Teacher Discipline Agency Made this Call in Private for Decades

When I saw the news the other day that KSTP had discovered that Minnesota’s Board of Teaching had failed to report teachers suspected of sexual misconduct, my first thought was, “Of course—why should the scandal stop with the failure to license excellent teachers, when there are abusive ones to protect?”

The story was followed a day or two later by the launching of tin-eared statements by elected officials from both parties, who presumably see political profit from blaming each other, umbrage from the governor — who for years has turned a blind eye to that long-running excellent teacher thing – and the issuing of a statement by the board’s new director and longtime chair.

It was the board’s letter to KSTP that tipped me over the edge. It was two full pages of, essentially, it’s not our job, only a few got through on our watch, and we didn’t think the “boundary violations” rose to the level of criminal conduct.

No remorse, no “our thoughts go out to those impacted” language, no vowing to do better. Just exactly what we’ve heard in the ongoing licensure fiasco: a deep commitment to the status quo and the dismissal of anyone who challenges it.

Here are some words that do not appear anywhere in the letter: Child, family, abuse, victim, survivor, exploit, predator, hurt, heal. The word student is mentioned, but only in relation to the real actors here, teachers: “The Board is responsible for ensuring that students in Minnesota have qualified and effective teachers.”

The license of the teacher who abused me and a bunch of other students at the St. Paul Open School, No. 126873, is valid – right now, today — for teaching secondary Spanish, social studies and history and expires 6/30/9999, according to state records.

He’s been dead for more than 20 years, so no children are at risk–of him. But my case (yes, he’s the offender, but I would like to reverse the language here so as to change the discussion) neatly illustrates the problem at the heart of the Board’s disbelief that it has had an obligation, moral or legal, to report abuse cases.

I wrote about the blind eye the system turned to me and my classmates a year and a half ago, when the last recourse to address the abuse was foreclosed to us. There is too much ice water coursing my veins today for me to revisit the pain that fueled that piece. Just know that I thought we had slammed the lid on the sarcophagus and here the story is rising Reanimator-style from the depths.

The relevant facts from that more detailed piece: Teacher Jerry Jax had been let go from two Minnesota school districts and allowed to leave with a clean record. St. Paul hired him and tried to fire him after we blew the whistle.

That resulted in a contested judicial hearing where we testified. After we testified he was allowed – again – to resign with a clean record. He went on to teach in California. One of our mothers blew the whistle on him there; who knows of his subsequent firing is noted on that state’s records, either.

This was pretty much SOP in these cases everywhere, and “Spotlight” and other marquee explications notwithstanding, still happens. Which renders the background checks that are done at hiring pretty much meaningless. Which of all entities, the Board of Teaching should know.

From KSTP’s second story:

The board stated it is ‘not aware of any legal obligation’ to report disciplinary action related to such allegations to law enforcement.

Instead, the board has operated in a vacuum for decades in which it conducts internal investigations and determines what qualifies as criminal behavior.

Which is precisely how the board has rolled when it comes to the theater of the absurd licensure contretemps, in which the board ignored two legislative mandates to change, refused to answer questions from talented, in-demand teachers seeking licenses, refused to comply with a judicial order or a subsequent contempt finding.

After a state auditor pronounced it irretrievably broken, the Legislature this last session called for it to be replaced by an entirely new board and new licensure system. And someone somewhere seems to have been tracking the blind-eye-to-abuse issue, because the new law is crystal clear that the new board must report allegations to law enforcement.

And, because nothing about this storyline is normal, the abuse reports weren’t the only board news in the headlines this week. MinnPost has a piece up introducing the new board’s new members, who include two holdovers whose inclusion is said to be one of the back-door deals that got the reboot past Gov. Mark Dayton’s veto.

Check out the perspective one of them, Anne Krafthefer:

Beyond her teaching role, Krafthefer says she’s very involved with teacher training through the American Federation of Teachers, the national teachers union. She had already served a four-year term on the Board of Teaching and was reappointed by Dayton. She sees value in being able to bring her institutional memory to the new board.

“We have certain criteria as a board,” she said, noting they refer to rules to guide their decision making, but they also draw upon each others’ areas of expertise when discussing things like disciplinary measures and reviewing requests to place a non-licensed teacher in a classroom that would otherwise go vacant due to the various teacher shortages. “Without having that continuity, the standards we’d been using for those things would be lost.”

She says she doesn’t view the PELSB as a fresh start. Rather, she maintains that the old board “has been a very cohesive board.” While she thinks it’s unfortunate things ended the way they did, she says, “That doesn’t mean that I don’t welcome new people.”

Expertise on matters of discipline. The standards we’d been using for these things would be lost. How can she have lived through recent years and think the status quo is the goal here?

Then again, how is it the old board thought moving the public meeting where it was to begin discussing the transition to a new board to a barn in far western Minnesota would further anyone’s trust?

And finally: What kind of fresh start is it when it’s kicked off with a letter from the board’s brand-new director asserting that things are just fine and promising zero commitment to change?

This is not going to be fun. When a teacher – or an adult with ready access to children in any system — is found to be abusive, it raises questions about administrators, colleagues, oversight, policy and culture. And the answers frequently aren’t pretty, which is why I think the non-solution of letting the bad apples leave with their licenses has persisted.

But we have a chance to make it meaningful. From my perspective, here is the bottom line: The new board will succeed or fail based on its ability to see beyond the interests of the adults in the system – to preserve their licenses, or their exclusive franchise – and begin to see Minnesota’s children. Follow the statute by all means, but consider at every juncture whether their interests are being served.




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