No More Pencils, No More Books, No More Teachers' Dirty Looks
His e-mails read like the sappy drivel of a lovesick newlywed separated from his bride for the first time. “Happy five months my love,” says one. “They have been the best five months of my entire life.” Six days later: “I wanted to tell you about this dream I had last night. It was that we made love in the woods (again). . . . I dreamt that you took me to a level of romance that I had never experienced before.” Just hours before: “Angel, I do not have time to respond properly to your email. . . . You can bet I will! I ove [sic] you so much. All day today on the course I just smiled. . . . I love you.”
Of course, if these were simply the words of a blissful husband cooing to his young wife via the magic of the Internet, anybody who stumbled across them would, most likely, have ignored them. But these e-mail messages were written by a teacher at Palmer High School, Kim-Michael Mertes, to a 14-year-old girl at another Massachusetts high school. And Mertes's principal, John P. Williams, could hardly ignore that. “I am writing to inform you,” Williams wrote in a certified letter to the popular science teacher and field hockey coach, “that you have been placed on paid administrative leave effective immediately.”
Mertes resigned, and, while he was never criminally charged — and denies he had sex with the girl, despite explicit references in his e-mails — the state did something most people never hear about: It took away his teaching license. Mertes, who was living in Northampton, left town, landing a job coaching field hockey and lacrosse at Virginia Wesleyan College.
That was three years ago, a seemingly isolated case of one teacher befriending a student, and then, as his own resignation letter admitted, developing “a relationship built on sympathy and concern for her, which obviously crossed the line.”
But three years ago, that line was in a different place. There had not yet been a scandal in the Catholic Church to give parents pause, to make them wonder about the backgrounds, personalities, even the sexual preferences, of every authority figure, no matter how trustworthy, in their children's lives. After all, many of the accused priests spent only an hour or two per week with their victims, if that. Teachers and coaches cross paths daily, over and over again, with their students — in class, in the hallways, in locker rooms, after school, even from the privacy of their homes, thanks to e-mail.
Mertes's e-mails are among hundreds of pages of records of Massachusetts teachers, obtained by Boston magazine after a lengthy legal battle with the state Department of Education. They show that defrocked priests have plenty of company when it comes to preying on children. The state has revoked, suspended, denied, or limited the licenses of at least 38 teachers in the last eight years, these records show, almost all of them for sexual misconduct.
There was Zack Burwell, a Boston teacher who pleaded guilty to rape and indecent assault and battery on a person over 14.
There was James A. Ballard, hired as assistant superintendent in West Springfield, who was fired and had his license revoked after officials learned he had lied on his job application by not mentioning that he'd been convicted in North Carolina of making sexually harassing phone calls.
There was James Risi, who state records show had an inappropriately close relationship with a girl in his fourth-grade class in Dover, often whispering “I love you” to her.
And there was Robert E. Miller, who pleaded guilty to accosting students in his Springfield class, inviting one to sit on his lap.
That's only a sampling of the closed cases. There are another 52 cases pending, from Brookline to Natick to Haverhill, most of them involving sexual allegations. And those are just the incidents that have been discovered. Experts say that for every victim who comes forward there are nine who keep their troubles to themselves. That's potentially hundreds of victims in this state. Nor are private-school teachers licensed, meaning there is no requirement for those schools to report sexual misconduct cases to anyone.
None of this can be very comforting to educators and lawmakers in a state like Massachusetts. Though the Education Department has toughened some regulations to crack down on abusive teachers in the last few years, it has failed to correct other flaws, leaving schools at risk of hiring someone who may simply be doing what Kim-Michael Mertes was doing when he landed in Virginia: running from a dark past.
As loopholes go, this one is big enough to drive a school bus through. Just ask Phillip Littlefield, the Methuen superintendent. School was winding down last spring when two high school girls came forward alleging that Dennis Sheehan, a special education teacher, had groped them and forced them to kiss him. Within weeks, Sheehan had been fired and arrested on charges of battery and indecent assault. That alone was enough to ruin any superintendent's day — having one of his teachers busted. (The case is pending.) But the news got worse for Littlefield.
Turns out that Methuen had hired Sheehan after the Londonderry, New Hampshire, school district, 16 miles to the north, had fired him three years earlier because of a similar scandal: his arrest when a pair of high school girls said he masturbated in the classroom while they were taking a makeup test after school. Sheehan, who was acquitted in court, simply drove south and crossed into Massachusetts, where he found a substitute-teaching job in Arlington. Methuen hired him in January.
Had anyone simply typed “Dennis Sheehan” and “Londonderry” into a search engine like Google, an official link to the New Hampshire Public Employee Labor Relations Board would have popped up, with details about the teacher's past. Of course, as even students are taught, the Internet is hardly the most reliable source, making other checks essential.
And that's where Massachusetts falls short of what other states have done. Before a teacher, or any school employee, for that matter, is hired here, the hiring district has the state's Criminal History Systems Board do a background check. That check will flag most arrests in this state — but nowhere else. Only the FBI's Criminal Justice Information Services Division, which is used by 42 states to vet new teachers, searches fingerprint records on file everywhere. People who buy guns in Massachusetts have their criminal records checked nationwide, thanks to new gun control laws. But a person applying for a teaching job here could conceivably have rape convictions in the 49 other states and still land the job because his criminal record in Massachusetts would be clean. “It's a cursory background check,” admits Frank Shea, the state Department of Education's investigator of educator misconduct.
It's a particularly troubling gap in Massachusetts, which borders New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, and New York, and is a snowball's throw from Maine, making it a convenient destination for any teacher on the run hoping to stay close to home. Like Sheehan.
“I think people like this become creative in circumventing whatever we put in place,” Littlefield says. “A person can just go across the border, and if they do have a record, but not in Massachusetts, it won't show up. That is a big loophole. We need to build a better mousetrap. I don't ever want to be in a position like this again.”
Littlefield says that he and other public officials plan to push state and federal lawmakers to establish one database all schools can tap into, showing records from every state. It will cost the districts money — something they have very little of these days — but if it's, say, $50 per search (in New Hampshire, the searches cost $34 per teacher), Littlefield says he'd find a way. “I think each student here is worth $50,” he says. “Don't you?”
State Senator Cheryl Jacques, who is spearheading the effort to change state laws in the wake of the clergy abuse scandal, calls the loophole in the background checks “a tragedy waiting to happen.” But closing it, she adds, won't be cheap. “It's easy to say, Let's do it, but a whole other thing to fund it,” she says. “I imagine our school districts would say, 'Put this in our school aid.' And, as you know, school aid's being cut. I don't want to pass an unfunded mandate.”
Until something changes, Shea says school districts have to ask the tough questions before hiring someone, especially since he estimates that 25 percent of prospective teachers lie on their applications and that reference checks are often useless because many people are hesitant to say something bad about their former employees and coworkers. There are warning signs, however, that should at least make a principal or superintendent wary. If a teacher is applying for a job after a long stint somewhere else, why is he suddenly leaving? If she's changing jobs and changing fields, from history to special education, for example, why the shift? If he's leaving another state entirely, what's driving him out?
With the reverberations still strong from the church crisis, people who track this problem say it's an ideal time to push for better protection of schoolchildren. A survey by the trade publication Education Week found that other states are moving aggressively to criminalize sex between educators and older teenagers, to strengthen background checks of school employees, and to stop child molesters from moving to new jobs. “It's a very receptive climate,” says Shea.
Toughening the background checks would be the simplest, most clear-cut improvement. But there's another weakness in Massachusetts law that other states have already addressed, one that raises moral issues schools are often nervous about confronting: This is one of 23 states without a law making sex illegal between a student and educator. Sex is legal in Massachusetts between a student and school employee as long as the student is at least 16. While 27 states ban teacher-student sex, Massachusetts doesn't, which critics say is inviting trouble. “Consent has no place in a relationship with a student and a teacher,” says Terri Miller, president of a national network called SESAME, for Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct & Exploitation. “When it's an authority figure, that student can't give consent. There is grooming and manipulation and seduction, until that teacher gains physical access to that student. They can call it consensual because they have groomed them to consent. But it's exploitation.”
Of course, it's never that simple. Even hugging has become an issue in the climate of sexual harassment. “Hugging a six-year-old girl is one thing,” says Shea, the investigator, “but hugging a 16-year-old is another. It depends on the type of hug.”
Many times, the allegations teachers face fall into that gray area. Shea recalls one incident in which a teacher spotted a female student walking away with a five-dollar bill hanging out of the back pocket of her jeans. The teacher called her back and stuffed his hand in her pocket, pushing the money down. Shea pauses and shrugs his shoulders. “Duh,” he says. The girl went home, told her mother, and a complaint was filed. The teacher could have simply told the girl to tuck the money away herself. But does that mean his intention was sexual or was it merely playful? Crossing that line can mean the difference between a long and honorable teaching career or a disgraceful departure — as James Doherty discovered.
Doherty was a staff member and coach of almost every sport for 40 years at Savio Preparatory High School in East Boston, an independent prep school run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. A member of the Massachusetts Basketball Coaches Hall of Fame, he was respected by his players, who told police he would often massage his runners' legs without ever making them uncomfortable. But then two years ago, three girls came forward, indecent assault and battery charges were filed, and Doherty admitted his massages had crossed that boundary, that he had touched the students' genitals. He pleaded guilty.
Other cases leave no doubts. John Shockro, a teacher in Mattapoisett, pleaded guilty in 1997 to raping two teenage girls. Paul Alves was a New Bedford elementary school teacher when police raided his home in 1994 and found stacks of child pornography. He pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography and lost his license. In 1995, state records show, Glen Mohika, a Lawrence High School administrator, was charged with molesting two boys and denied a license. He was subsequently convicted of indecent assault and battery.
No laws could have prevented those incidents, but Shea says there is one change that could immediately help the Department of Education when it first learns of an abuse allegation: the power to wield investigative subpoenas, which can compel witnesses to testify and reluctant school districts to produce vital information. “The Massachusetts Board of Registration in Medicine has it, and the Board of Bar Overseers has it,” Shea says of investigative subpoena power. “Protecting children is similar in urgency to protecting clients and patients.”
Two years ago Shea saw the power of changing the rules, when the Education Department imposed a new regulation requiring school administrators to start reporting to the state whenever any educator was dismissed for a specific incident. Until then, a teacher could be fired, but the school district didn't have to make the reason public, meaning that the teacher could move on to a new job more easily. Shea was typically juggling 10 to 15 cases at a time when that regulation changed. Now he has more than 50, most of them involving sexual allegations, the rest thefts and drunken driving arrests. “We knew stuff was going on, but we just couldn't get at it,” Shea says. “It's just like the church: In the last year I've seen a huge increase in reporting.”
Of course, while some of these cases were the subject of coffee shop gossip in their communities, and a few were reported in the local media, many have slipped by quietly, and the state does not disclose the details when it revokes a teacher's license. The Department of Education refused for three months to release the files at all to Boston magazine, until the magazine appealed to the state supervisor of public records, who called the delay “unreasonable” and the refusal “unacceptable,” and ordered that the records be produced.
No formal studies of child molesters in schools have been done, though one report found that in 1998 there were 103,600 reported cases of sexual abuse in public schools nationwide, most involving teachers. In most cases of sexual exploitation of children, men are usually the predators, and the victims are almost always boys. Rather than force themselves on children with violence, the men lure them with enticements — usually pornography, alcohol, or marijuana.
As the case of Kim-Michael Mertes shows, the Internet has also spawned a new way for teachers to reach out to children, a method perceived as being discreet, but that has become less so as police find ways to infiltrate chat rooms and pose as curious kids.
Just last spring, Shea revoked the license of Francis Lambert, a Hudson physical education teacher who pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography. Lambert's 30-year teaching career ended abruptly when school officials found he had tried to access 1,000 porn sites from his school computer, downloaded kiddie porn at home, and sent inappropriate e-mails to a 12-year-old girl.
Haverhill police arrested a high school teacher over the summer who allegedly admitted he was addicted to sex and the Internet, and who they say chatted online with someone he thought was a 13-year-old girl about meeting for sex; in fact, he was chatting with an undercover cop. A similar scenario led to the arrest of Joseph Doyle, a Natick High School hockey coach who resigned after his arrest last spring in New Hampshire. Police say he was expecting to meet a 14-year-old boy he had contacted on the Internet — a boy who turned out to be an undercover detective. The case is pending. Doyle had been forced to resign in 1988 from St. Sebastian's School in Needham for throwing a party with alcohol for underage students.
When cases like these break, they leave behind tornado-like wreckage, from the confused students, to the angry parents, to the embarrassed administrators. All of those emotions are washing over Brookline High School this fall as the staff and student body reel from the shock of not one, but two arrests. Geoffrey Dana Hicks, a 48-year-old music teacher from Newton, has pleaded not guilty to raping a child under 16, and just a few weeks before his arraignment, Waldemar Ulich, a 61-year-old former teacher of English as a second language, was arrested on 10 counts of indecent assault and battery on a child over 14. His case is pending. Hicks was suspended. Ulich, who caught the attention of Brookline officials five years back when a student accused him of assault — the charge was dropped — has resigned.
Those cases are public because they occurred at a public school. Private schools monitor themselves, so unless a case reaches the courts it is likely to never become public. That's what happened when Phillips Andover Academy English teacher David Cobb was fired after 27 years and convicted in 1996 of attempted sexual assault after he posed as a camp counselor to lure a 12-year-old boy and showed pornographic pictures to a 13-year-old boy. Because Cobb was convicted in Massachusetts, it would show up if he ever arrived on some unsuspecting principal's doorstep in this state. But had it happened 20 minutes to the north, in New Hampshire, Cobb might have found a job here easy to come by — as Littlefield learned.
“As a person entrusted with the safety and well-being of children,” he says, “I want to know more.”