With Teacher Sexual Misconduct, Making Sure ‘Bad Apples Get Weeded Out’

The Tennessee state capitol building.

The Tennessee state capitol building. Shutterstock


Connecting state and local government leaders

2018 NAVIGATOR AWARD WINNER | Tara Bergfeld, principal legislative research assistant, Tennessee Comptroller’s Office

This is the the eighth in a series of profiles on the 10 winners of the 2018 Route Fifty Navigator Awards, this one in the Next Generation category.

In 2016, USA Today gave Tennessee and a handful of other states an “F” for how it handled background checks for teachers and shared information about sexual misconduct investigations.

For some Tennessee legislators, it was alarming. So, state Sen. Dolores Gresham, the chairwoman of the education committee, asked the state’s comptroller office to take a deeper dive.

Tara Bergfeld, a principal legislative research analyst, and her colleague Kim Potts, were assigned the task of digging into the issue. They ended up looking at five policy areas related to sexual misconduct by teachers, which could be either criminal actions or inappropriate behavior with young people that could lead to a teacher losing a license.

For example, in Tennessee, school districts were ultimately responsible for ensuring that background checks were done on teacher applicants, which meant there could be differences in how rules were followed. Some districts would also conduct periodic follow-up checks on teachers to make sure they knew about anything that happened since they were hired, but this wasn’t done in all locations.  

Bergfeld, 32, and Potts found that the state board of education had just one full-time attorney to review all misconduct allegations against teachers, leading to non-criminal cases, which could include everything from cheating to harassment, sometimes lingering for months or longer.

“We tried to determine how far back were some of these outstanding cases,” Bergfeld said. “There were several years old cases out there, where their licenses had been flagged but we didn’t know what the result was. Did you ever do anything to their license? Are they still teaching? Was there a conclusion to this investigation?”

That finding in particular was eye-opening for the lawmakers when the comptroller’s office released its analysis in January, Bergfeld said. The report explained various aspects of what they found, while giving lawmakers questions to consider as they crafted policies.

The report ended up being a little different than the comptroller’s typical work in that it made so many policy recommendations, Bergfeld said.

Bergfeld said she took the lead on explaining the findings to the public and legislators, including presenting to the Tennessee School Board Association’s conference.

Gresham ended up writing five bills, which were signed onto by all members of the education committee. All were passed into law.

One new law seeks to strengthen the rules for when school systems would notify the state about a teacher who had either been convicted of a felony crime or been terminated, suspended or resigned following allegations, including of sexual misconduct. Another created a formal policy for reporting Tennessee’s disciplinary actions to a national clearinghouse, while a different one required updated background checks for existing teachers. One law banned school districts from signing nondisclosure agreements with educators who committed sexual misconduct with a student. The state also defined what would be an inappropriate relationship between a student and teacher and lawmakers set aside money to hire an additional attorney for the state board to review cases.

“Teachers don’t want bad actors in their profession and I think strengthening these laws makes sure that the bad apples get weeded out,” Bergfeld said.

Laura Maggi is Managing Editor of Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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