Safeguards are in place … but are they enough?
As the human resources director for Lake Tahoe Unified School District, Beth Delacour reviews applications from potential teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and instructional aides.
Each person applying for a job that involves working, and being alone, with children is fingerprinted and checked against databases with the Department of Justice and FBI.
For instance, Delacour has told parents who’ve had brushes with the law in drug or alcohol matters that they can’t drive a car with student passengers during field trips.
In the matter of Karsten Gronwold, a former elementary teacher in Lake Tahoe Unified School District arrested Friday and federally charged on suspicion of possessing and manufacturing child pornography, there was no indication of his alleged interest in children engaging in sexual acts, Delacour said.
In his original application in June 1990, Gronwold answered “no” to three questions asking if his credential was ever suspended or revoked, if he was dismissed or asked to resign from any teaching position, and if he was convicted of anything more than a traffic citation.
Delacour said the district is working with its attorneys so it can change Gronwold’s status from paid administrative leave to unpaid administrative leave.
His lone criminal history had an arrest of second-degree burglary in early 1990, but it was unknown if it was charged as a misdemeanor or felony and the outcome of the arrest, authorities said.
Gronwold’s teaching credential had to be renewed every five years and required the completion of an application similar to the one teachers fill out when they first begin in a district.
Jennifer Robertson, a parent of a student at the Lake Tahoe Environmental Science Magnet School, where Gronwold was set to teach second grade, was angry at Gronwold rather than the school district.
“I don’t know if there was anything else they could have done,” she said. “If there is no history of it, and obviously no one else around him knew about it, I don’t know what else the school could have done.”
Robertson is “confident” the district did enough to screen potential wrongdoers from being around children.
“You really wish there was a personality profile that would catch something like this, but it may not have. … It just seems like it’s one of those things where he’s good enough at hiding it,” she said.
South Lake Tahoe City Councilman Mike Weber agreed with Robertson, saying he has full confidence in the district and the safeguards they have established in screening teachers.
However, he said targeting pedophiles also involves a child’s relationship with their parents and the parents’ relationship with teachers, coaches and childcare workers and the district.
“I think it is a combination of the system, the parents and good communication all around,” said Weber, who has two children attending the magnet school.
The investigation of Gronwold, 49, led to the discovery of a laptop supplied by the district to him for work purposes that had access to a Yahoo! account allegedly containing child pornography.
Information Technology Support Supervisor Ken Lamascus said when the teacher-assigned laptops are used at the school, firewalls prevent them and students from going into unsuitable Web sites.
But many teachers take the laptops with them after school and can access indecent material on the Internet from any wireless connection, he said.
In servicing laptops, Lamascus has chided teachers for having noneducational programs and files such as iTunes. He gives a warning: “iTunes comes off or the laptop comes off,” he said.
Teachers fill out a form pledging to use the computer for work purposes only, officials said. Student laptops have a program preventing files and programs to be saved, Lamascus said.
At St. Theresa Catholic School, updated software is downloaded into each teacher’s iBook laptop, which, along with firewalls, serves as a safeguard from indecent material being accessed and stored in the computer, according to Principal Danette Winslow.
In regard to the hiring process, fingerprints for potential hires are also sent to the Department of Justice and FBI. At least three letters of recommendation are part of the requirement, Winslow said.
“I think that’s all you can do at this point,” she said.
Teachers annually sign a code of ethics, Winslow said. With recent child exploitation charges levied across people of all professions, she hopes children won’t attach a stigma to people in those careers.
“It’s not the priest or the doctor or the teacher. It was a person who made some bad decisions,” she said.
The Boys & Girls Club of Lake Tahoe also require adults, even those on the board of directors, to undergo a fingerprint background check.
“Our whole mantra is a safe place for kids so having staff that was background checked is very important,” said Executive Director Karen Houser.
Teachers charged with a serious felony such as child pornography or violence have their credential placed on automatic suspension, according to Mary Armstrong, general counsel to the California Commission on Teaching Credentialing.
If convicted of the crime, their credential is revoked, Armstrong said. If charges are dropped the credential is reinstated or if a plea deal is reached with lesser charges, the teacher in question could argue their case for reinstatement in front of the credentialing committee.
John Mark Karr, the man who apparently falsely confessed to killing JonBenet Ramsey in December 1996, had his credential suspended by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing in 2001. No specific reason was given, but automatic suspensions are authorized when a complaint, information or indictment is filed in court alleging the teacher has committed an offense specified in the Education Code, the Associated Press reported.
In the 2001-02 fiscal year, there were 57 mandatory revocations compared to 96 in the 2002-03 fiscal year, according to the commission. In 2003-04, 81 credentials were mandatorily revoked.
On average, less than 1 percent of teacher credential holders in California are disciplined, Armstrong said.
“You can’t predict a person with no criminal record (that) he will commit a crime five years down the line,” Armstrong said. “There is no system that will predict something that like.”
– E-mail William Ferchland at email@example.com
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