Act now to bar secret deals

Oregon legislators have the opportunity to react quickly to a serious flaw in Oregon law that allows school districts to cut secret deals with teachers suspected of sexually abusing students. So far, lawmakers' reactions have not covered them in glory.

After months of investigation, The Oregonian reported this week that nearly half of Oregon teachers disciplined for sexual misconduct with students in the past 5 years left their jobs with secret agreements. In most of those cases, the district agreed not to reveal the alleged abuse to prospective employers, and some agreements included cash payments and letters of recommendation.

In several cases, accused teachers went on to teach in other states.

School district officials say the agreements protect kids by removing the teacher from the classroom and save taxpayers money by avoiding costly legal battles. The state Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, which investigates teacher misconduct, has a backlog of nearly 300 cases and only 2.5 investigators to pursue them. According to The Oregonian, the time it takes to investigate a complaint has grown from nine months to more than 15 months in the past five years.

Clearly, school administrators have a duty to act quickly to protect students when they suspect abuse has occurred. Just as clearly, they cannot wait for the state to complete an investigation. At the same time, an accused teacher has the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Oregon is not alone in facing this dilemma. The practice of secret agreements is widespread, The Oregonian reports, and only a few states have taken steps to bar such agreements.

That is the first step the Legislature should take: prohibit districts from promising to keep abuse allegations secret.

Lawmakers rushed to do that on Tuesday, but the effort quickly deteriorated into partisan bickering over how a bill should be introduced, and by whom, in the short session that is nearing its end. This is hardly the time to quibble over who gets credit for addressing a problem that needs immediate attention.

Banning secret agreements is only the first step. The state commission needs more investigators to address its growing backlog of cases, and if additional funding is needed, the Legislature should find a way to provide it.

For its part, the commission should devote more than the 15 percent of its budget now dedicated to discipline.

It's important to note that cases of teachers sexually abusing students is hardly widespread. Oregon public schools employ 35,000 educators. In the past decade, the state comission disciplined 165 employees for inappropriate behavior ranging from improper touching to molestation or rape. The Oregonian's investigation confirmed just 47 confidential settlement agreements with departing teachers.

But those are 47 educators who could have gone on to teach — and potentially molest — students somewhere else. Oregon's children, and children everywhere, deserve more protection than that.

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