May 3, 2012

Kansas BOE may consider reinstating Wichita teacher’s license

State school officials say they may reconsider their decision to revoke the license of a Wichita teacher who allegedly waited too long to report suspected child abuse.

State school officials say they may reconsider their decision to revoke the license of a Wichita teacher who allegedly waited too long to report suspected child abuse.

Kansas State Board of Education chairman David Dennis of Wichita said the teacher, Donna Ford, has until Monday to submit a “petition for reconsideration” to the state board.

If she does, board members would take up the issue of Ford’s license surrender – and their subsequent vote to revoke her license – at their regular meeting next week, Dennis said.

“I feel certain that the board would reconsider a request. There’s no reason not to,” he said.

Ford, a former kindergarten teacher at Cleaveland Traditional Magnet Elementary School in southwest Wichita, surrendered her teaching license last month to the state board, a condition of her resignation with early-retirement benefits from the Wichita district. She had been a teacher for 17 years.

Reached by phone Thursday, Ford said she no longer is being represented by attorneys with United Teachers of Wichita, the local teachers union.

“I don’t have any representation at this point,” she said.

Asked whether she planned to ask the state board to reinstate her teaching license, she said, “I’m still trying to make that decision.”

David Schauner, general counsel for the Kansas National Education Association, said the union “represented her in her employment issue, and … our representation has been concluded by that agreement.”

“There’s not anything at this point to represent her on,” Schauner said Thursday. “If she wants to file a petition (for reinstatement), she’s certainly free to do that. That’s not something we’re involved in.”

Attorneys and education officials have said Ford’s case marks the first time a Kansas teacher has had his or her license revoked for allegedly taking too long to report suspected abuse.

Kansas law requires teachers, doctors, counselors and other mandatory reporters to inform the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services or law enforcement agencies if they suspect a child has been abused.

Details of Ford’s case – including when and how she first suspected a student was being abused, whether other school employees knew of her suspicions and why a report may have been delayed – have not been made public.

According to a letter Ford submitted to the state Department of Education in March, she surrendered her license as a condition of her resignation with early-retirement benefits.

The resignation was “a result of allegations that I delayed reporting alleged sexual abuse for a period of two weeks,” she said in the letter.

Wichita district officials said they could not comment because it is a personnel matter. Ford said she could not comment because doing so would void her agreement with the district.

Police and court records show that a 15-year-old boy was charged Feb. 2 in juvenile court with allegedly molesting a 6-year-old child. The boy, who was ordered to home-based supervision, is scheduled to make his next court appearance Wednesday.

Many friends, colleagues and parents of Ford’s former students have rallied around the teacher, calling lawmakers, circulating petitions and launching online forums to demand she be reinstated.

Others, including one national support group for abuse victims, have applauded the district and state board’s actions, saying teachers should face quick and severe consequences if they don’t immediately report even remote suspicions of abuse.

Dennis, the state board chairman and a former teacher, said “lots of people are calling” him and other board members to protest the board’s decision, saying Ford’s license should not have been revoked.

Under the terms of her agreement with the district, Ford surrendered her license without involving the Professional Practices Commission, a body within the state Department of Education that normally investigates cases of alleged professional misconduct and makes recommendations to the state Board of Education.

“She has some support, and I can understand that fully,” Dennis said. “I just want to make sure people understand, our board was only looking at her request to voluntarily surrender her license. That’s all we knew and all we had to go by.”

Shelley Holland, a Wichita mom whose three children were past students of Ford’s, said she hopes the teacher will ask the state board to reinstate her license. She also expressed anger Thursday at the local teachers union for dropping the case.

“They abandoned her, and that’s not right,” Holland said. “Now she’s on her own, I guess, if she wants to fight this.”

Larry Landwehr, president of United Teachers of Wichita, said Ford is “still represented by the union as long as she follows the agreement she made with the district.”

“If she goes against the agreement, then it’s out of our hands,” he said.

Holland said that regardless of what happens with Ford, she hopes the district will clarify its policies and procedures regarding mandated reporting for teachers and other employees.

“To me the bigger point is: What’s wrong with your system? How does this happen, and is somebody else going to fall into this pit? … I want to know if my child is protected, or if everybody is going to be even more afraid to speak up.”

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