Teacher misconduct legislation revived in Missouri

JEFFERSON CITY | Missouri lawmakers are again considering a measure meant to keep sexually abusive teachers out of the classroom.

The Senate Education Committee on Wednesday heard testimony on the Amy Hestir Student Protection Act. The proposed legislation (SB 41) is named after a victim of teacher sex abuse who came forward to fight the problem.

The Columbia resident, now 41, told lawmakers how she was raped by a junior high teacher in Moberly for two years starting when she was 12. No criminal charges were filed and the assailant remains a teacher elsewhere in Missouri.

"That teacher is the first boy I ever kissed. He's the first boy I ever hugged. He became the first boy I ever had sex with," she said. "And when I said I didn't want to do those things anymore, he raped me."

The Associated Press does not normally identify victims of sexual abuse but Hestir agreed to have her named released. The AP is not identifying the teacher because no criminal charges or civil complaints have been filed.

The bill sponsored by Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, broadens the list of criminal offenses under which the state would automatically revoke a teacher's license.

The proposal also calls for annual criminal background checks for all licensed teachers. Current rules require such scrutiny only for new teachers and those whose licensing requirements change because of a job switch.

A similar proposal in 2008 overwhelmingly won approval in the House but did not advance to a full Senate vote.

Cunningham, a House member at the time who won election to the Senate in November, filed the first bill in response to a 2007 national AP investigation into teacher sex abuse. The AP inquiry found that 87 licensed teachers in Missouri lost their credentials from 2001 through 2005 because of sexual misconduct.

"There are tremendously inadequate teacher background checks in the state of Missouri," Cunningham told the Senate committee.

Also testifying Wednesday was State Auditor Susan Montee. An August 2007 audit found that teachers with criminal records and histories of child abuse continue to work with children, despite state laws intended to bar such offenders from the classroom.

The auditor said she was not in favor of nor opposed to the bill but simply sharing her audit findings.

A provision in the bill requiring the state Department of Social Services to maintain records of unsubstantiated abuse allegations drew opposition from Otto Fajen, a lobbyist for the Missouri National Education Association and other teachers' groups.

"This really has the effect of (labeling) someone guilty until proven innocent," he said. "The consequence on the employee is a potential lifetime ban on public service."

Fajen said his clients could support the bill with the removal of that provision as well as a more "narrowly tailored" provision to grant civil immunity to local school districts and employees who share more detailed work histories of job-hunting teachers that could include information about abuse complaints.