Teacher indecency can get lost in state's system, Trib analysis reveals
When Tracy A. Bergen stepped before a Columbia County chemistry class in the fall of 2010, state education officials were investigating her alleged sexual relationship with a female student in another district where she taught, records show.
No one knew — not students, parents or Harry C. Mathias, the superintendent who unwittingly hired her at Central Columbia High School in Bloomsburg. Neither a criminal background check nor calls to her referencesturned up anything unusual.
“We potentially put our kids at risk, and I think that's ridiculous,” said Mathias, still angry that the state did not make available to him information about Bergen's problems in Susquehanna Community School District, about 100 miles north of Bloomsburg.
“It was like talking to the CIA,” he said. “If you know something I should know, I think you have a moral obligation to tell me that.”
At a time when Penn State University's Jerry Sandusky case, involving the former assistant football coach's molestation of boys, has heightened awareness of the issue, a Tribune-Review analysis of three years of Education Department, school district and court records revealed Bergen's story is not unique.
The records from 2011 through 2013 showed:
• At least three of 293 teachers disciplined by the Education Department were hired by other Pennsylvania districts while under investigation for alleged misconduct ranging from inappropriate sexual relationships to playing after-hours drinking games with teenagers.
• Because criminal charges were not filed in the three cases, no record existed to raise red flags with potential employers during routine background checks.
• One teacher was acquitted of sexual abuse charges and returned to the classroom while Education officials investigated him. They eventually revoked his license because they believed his behavior potentially could threaten students.
• Two Pennsylvania teachers' credentials were revoked when administrators realized they lost their licenses in other states, even though Education Department officials say they routinely check a nationwide database of teachers in trouble.
• In most cases, the teachers quietly resigned, with little information made public, because of laws that permit school officials to act on personnel matters behind closed doors.
• Some teachers' backgrounds were further shielded by “separation agreements” that limited the districts to releasing only their positions and dates of employment to anyone making inquiries.
“(The system) is not foolproof,” said Carolyn Angelo, executive director of the Education Department's Professional Standards and Practices Commission, the 13-member panel of teachers, administrators and members of the public that imposes discipline against educators.
It's not until the commission disciplines a teacher that information becomes available on the department's website.
“If we become aware that an educator has changed employers after the filing of a complaint, we notify the new employer,” said department spokesman Tim Eller. “Unfortunately, (the department) is not always aware when this happens.”
Eller said his department's investigations, taking anywhere from a few weeks to years, sometimes are delayed while police investigate.
Union officials say confidentiality is needed until teachers are disciplined or criminally charged.
“Those investigations are confidential for a simple but valid reason: Reputations are ruined by false allegations,” said Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Wythe Keever.
Child welfare advocates disagree.
“Some people would probably say, ‘What if (officials) are wrong?' ” said Cathleen Palm of the Protect Our Children Committee. “Then it works itself out in an investigative process.”
Hiding behind secrecy
The veil of secrecy permitted Bergen, 36, to work at Central Columbia High for nearly a year before disciplinary action against her began for ineffective teaching and Mathias learned what led to her resignation from her former school.
Bergen could not be reached for comment, but state records detail the revocation of her teaching certificate in July 2011 because of “inappropriate” involvement with a girl at her former school. The student eventually quit school, moved in with Bergen and began a sexual relationship, records show.
Bergen's former boss, Susquehanna Superintendent Bronson Stone, said: “I followed through, farther beyond the extent of the law, to make sure I reported everything pertinent.”
Because the student was 19 when the sexual relationship began, no criminal charges were filed. Since then, legislators enacted a state law making it a felony for any teacher or school staff member to have sexual contact with a student of any age.
Most often, it's the time it takes the Education Department to investigate allegations that gives teachers a chance to find jobs elsewhere.
That's how a Blairsville-Saltsburg chemistry teacher and athletic director accused of inviting students to his apartment to play drinking games was hired as a substitute teacher by the Franklin Regional School District in November 2012, records show.
John T. Palaika, 31, was days from surrendering his teaching certificate, but Franklin Regional officials did not know it.
More than the department's investigation was private: Neither Palaika's separation agreement with the district nor school board meeting minutes from his resignation eight months earlier offered details.
Five days after Franklin Regional hired him, Palaika voluntarily surrendered his license and never made it into a classroom, state records and district officials confirmed.
Numerous attempts to reach Palaika failed. Court records indicate he was not charged with any crime.
Indiana County District Attorney Patrick Dougherty was unaware of the case and declined to comment directly on it. He said playing drinking games with students could result in charges of furnishing alcohol to minors or corruption of minors.
Blairsville-Saltsburg officials declined to comment on the case.
While teacher Travis Brown, 32, was contesting allegations that he slept with an 18-year-old female student at Titusville Area High School in Crawford County, the Academy Charter School in Pittsburgh hired him for several weeks during the 2010-11 school year, state records show. His certification was revoked in November 2011.
Brown could not be reached for comment, and charter school officials declined to comment.
In Lancaster County, elementary teacher Matthew S. Deppen, 37, was allowed into a Manheim Central classroom in the fall of 2011 after a court acquitted him of inappropriately videotaping and peeping on his stepdaughter and exposing himself to her.
A lengthy Education Department investigation found his behavior was dangerous enough to warrant revoking his teaching certificate in January 2013. He was removed from his classroom that day.
Deppen could not be reached for comment.
At least two teachers with revoked out-of-state licenses landed jobs in Pennsylvania schools.
Bruce Benson, 60, was hired by the Philadelphia School District, even though his New Jersey teaching license was revoked in 2006 for touching and kissing a male student at a Key Club fundraiser and inappropriately touching another student, records show.
It wasn't until after Benson was awarded a principal's certification that Pennsylvania officials realized his past troubles.
Benson could not be reached for comment.
Eller said the department missed Benson's out-of-state revocation because of technology limitations with the national clearinghouse.
Craig Yoder, 35, was a math teacher in Northern York County School District for six years before officials realized his Virginia license had been pulled for inappropriate sexual contact with a female student. Yoder could not be reached for comment.
Experts say that post-Sandusky, who is serving a 30- to 60-year prison term, educators and the public are more vigilant and willing to report abuse, but many still worry the scandal might fuel unjust accusations.
Chester Kent, a former Keystone Oaks School District superintendent and retired University of Pittsburgh professor, said districts should err on the side of the children.
“If someone wants to sue you, let them get in line,” Kent said. “You were protecting students.”
Kari Andren is a Trib Total Media staff writer. She can be reached at 724-850-2856 or firstname.lastname@example.org.