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Schools chief asks for more money to probe teacher misconduct

In this Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 photo, Kathy Hoffman, a public school speech therapist, is a Democratic candidate running for superintendent of public education in Phoenix. Hoffman is running against three-term California congressman Frank Riggs, the founding president of an online charter school. In a wild card movement shaking up U.S. midterm election campaigns, hundreds of teacher candidates are running for elected office. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The state’s schools chief says the team in charge of investigating teacher misconduct claims is understaffed and overworked, and she wants enough money to double the staff.

Arizona Department of Education’s investigations unit currently has one chief, one administrator and four investigators who individually work on an average of 120-150 cases per year. Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman is asking for $556,000 to double the staff and add a second administrator to help with the workload. The request was part of the agency’s annual budget request to the governor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Budget.

Richie Taylor, a department spokesman, said putting that many cases on each investigator is too much, and more employees can help handle the caseload and reach a final disposition faster than the current average of 24 months.

The request comes on the heels of a joint investigation by KJZZ and The Arizona Republic looking into teachers who have been accused of sexual misconduct but have slipped through the cracks in the reporting system. But the request was finalized before the State Board of Education expressed it wants a lawmaker to introduce a bill that would expand the board’s authority to investigate non-certified school employees, such as coaches, support staff and student teachers.

To that point, an ADE spokesman said additional staff would need to be added to also account for non-certified staff on top of what was already requested.

Since fiscal year 2015, the investigations unit has opened nearly 5,000 cases, but only found a small fraction of those cases were adjudicated, according to data from the department and Board of Education.

The department could not provide information on how many cases were closed over that span without being adjudicated.

Alicia Williams, the executive director of the Board of Education, speculated a lot of those cases could be for a first time DUI with no aggravating factors, which she says would be closed fairly quickly.

In 2015, there was a fight over who oversaw the investigations unit – the board or the department, which was managed by Republican Diane Douglas, the superintendent at the time. Control was temporarily given to the board, but the department regained control in 2016, where it remains currently.

Misconduct allegations are reported to the ADE’s investigations unit, and then sent to the board after the case has been investigated.

During Douglas’ tenure, the unit faced a huge backlog of cases, according to data from the board. The department couldn’t immediately provide data on whether the investigations unit currently has a backlog of cases.

In 2015, an investigation found that 79 of 230 cases of teacher misconduct dating back to 2010 had not been reported to state or national databases and a failure to not report those cases yielded deadly results.

A 2009 love triangle involving a teacher who was having affairs with a current and former student of hers resulted in the murder of the current student by the former student. The teacher was under state investigation at the time of the murder for the affair with the former student.

More board data presents a gender divide of the teaching profession and which gender commits the most offenses.

As of December 2018, roughly 77% of certified teachers are women, but roughly 62% of all adjudicated cases are done by the male certified teachers. Williams said there is no data that goes deeper into the gender breakdown, but at a Board of Education retreat in August, one member recommended to keep track of that data moving forward. Williams told Arizona Capitol Times that is the plan for 2020.

Coming up at its next meeting on October 28, Williams said they plan to dive deeper into what they want from the Legislature next session as far as a bill targeting uncertified teachers.

The board, which certifies and revokes certifications from teachers, can direct investigators within the department to investigate reports of teacher misconduct, but it doesn’t have authority now over uncertified teachers and other school employees.

Most district school teachers must be certified, but charter schools don’t automatically require certification. Certified teachers who have been investigated can show up on two databases – the public-facing Online Arizona Certification Information System, which lists disciplinary action taken against teachers, and an internal database accessible only by school hiring managers that notes whether an investigation is ongoing.

If Hoffman does not get the money she is seeking, and this bill makes it through the Legislature to add the non-certified teachers to the list of duties the investigations unit has to handle, the department would be looking at much higher than the average 120-150 cases per person.

Staff Writer Julia Shumway contributed to this report.

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