Florida lawmakers want to create a “disqualification list” for teachers who commit sexual misconduct with a student. Bills in both chambers are moving, after dying last session.
“Too often, school employees can engage in sexual misconduct with a student and evade any consequences by moving among schools, districts and employers,” Republican Rep. Wyman Duggan said this week during committee.
Duggan ran the same bill last year, which passed the House unanimously, but was ultimately unsuccessful. Now it’s back, and again has a key Senator, education chair Manny Diaz, carrying it in the opposite chamber.
As it passed its first stop in the House, Duggan told his colleagues of a constituent who recently brought the issue to his attention:
“I had a woman tell me that her 16-year-old son was molested at one of our best charter schools in Duval County, and they did not want to put him through the stress of a disciplinary proceeding,” Duggan said. “But what they did learn is that the teacher who did it had done it before, and had done it before, and resigned and left.”
The bill includes not only teachers but educational support staff and administrators. Here’s how Duggan explains it:
“(The bill) prohibits public, charter and private schools participating in a state scholarship program, from employing perpetrators of sexual misconduct with a student, creates screening tools that employers must use to identify individuals eligible for employment, and requires the commissioner of education to determine probable cause within 60 days of a receipt of a legally sufficient complaint of sexual misconduct.”
Even if a teacher or school staffer were to resign or be fired, if a credible accusation exists, they would be placed on the disqualification list. The Jacksonville lawmaker says data backs up the need for his bill.
“According to a 2017 study, half of perpetrators had prior allegations of sexual misconduct with students, and 1 in 3 had multiple victims,” Duggan said.
Democratic Rep. Jennifer Webb asked Duggan about the potential for false allegations.
“What considerations have you made for false allegations,” Webb said, “to make sure that people who, when the investigation proves that they did not commit whatever allegation was waged against them, that their name does not end up on that list?”
Duggan says an investigation would have to clear employees.
“You can be removed from the list if the person on the list demonstrates that a completed law enforcement investigation resulted in an exoneration or no conviction or finding of guilt,” he said.
An investigation by the education agency would have to show no finding of misconduct as well, for removal from the list.
The bill goes beyond addressing full-time teachers with a state certification. In the Senate, Diaz addressed that during the bill’s first committee stop in December.
“This is to prevent folks from falling through the cracks. For example, you have someone who has a district certificate and is a substitute and gets into trouble. And then they go away, and two years later they come back and apply and it was never reported,” Diaz said. “This is to catch that.”
Last year, North Florida Senator Bill Montford and Leon County school board member Alva Striplin raised concerns about the lack of a database for substitute teachers. A violent 2018 tragedy in Tallahassee sparked a push for better record-keeping at the state level.
Scott Beierle, the man who shot and killed two people, injuring several others in Tallahassee’s Hot Yoga studio in November 2018, had been a substitute teacher in several counties, including Leon. Local leaders in education, like Striplin, became concerned.
“It hit really, really close to home. And of course, then as information started surfacing about the shooter, we got word that he had been in our school district. And I was just – it was just so disturbing,” Striplin told WFSU in August.
Beierle was a substitute in Leon between 2015-16, and was fired as a substitute by Leon County after he accessed pornography sites on-campus. He was later fired by the Volusia County School District for inappropriately touching a student.
Montford, who voted up on the bill in its first stop, says it’s about accountability.
“We, as a state, we’ve got to make absolutely sure that whoever is around our young people – whether they’re substitute teachers, teachers, volunteers – it really doesn’t matter, athletic officials, all of them; we have to make absolutely sure that they’re screened, they’re screened properly,” Montford said. “And if there’s a bad actor out there, we need to know who that is, and make sure that we have a list of those on the state level.”
Not everyone is in favor of the proposal. Keith Flaugh is director of the right-leaning Florida Citizens Alliance.
“We are struggling to understand the unintended consequences of this bill. It smacks of a government blacklist, and it appears to us to be ripe for abuse to school districts, especially school districts, to undermine the due process of individuals,” Flaugh told the Senate Education committee in December.
The Florida PTA, meanwhile, is supporting the proposal.
The House’s version of the bill goes slightly further than the Senate’s, giving the Department of Education’s Inspector General subpoena authority to call witnesses and demand documents as it relates to misconduct investigations.