Every couple of years, Springfield reporter Scott Reeder (pictured) puts out a big package of news stories that includes lots of new data and some surprising findings. This year, it's about teachers who stray off the path and should -- theoretically -- not be allowed to teach any more. In reality, Reeder finds, they just find a job somewhere else.
In the email interview below, Reeder describes what he found, how he found it, how Illinois compares to other states, and why his little paper can pull off this kind of investigative report when others stick to day-by-day reporting with a lot less depth or intensity.
So all teachers are sexual predators, right?
SR: The number of sexual predators in the teaching ranks is quite small. But the number of children who are victimized by this small percentage can be rather large.
Did you do any face to face reporting -- meet the fired teachers, for example?
SR: Yes. I found myself interviewing a teacher serving 30 years in Menard Correctional Center for sexually abusing a student. I talked to many victims and have interviewed many teachers who have been disciplined.
What was it like talking to the offenders? creepy, normal?
SR: What I found most disconcerting is how ordinary these offenders are. The fellow I interviewed in prison had been convicted of doing horrible things to a child. But he was clean cut and well spoken. He has a master’s degree and 10 years experience in the classroom. Before these allegations came to light, he was on track toward becoming a principal. There was nothing about his background or demeanor that would lead one to believe he was a child molester.
What was the most surprising finding or fact that you found in your reporting?
SR: I found it stunning that none of the tenured teachers fired in the last decade have had any action taken to revoke or suspend their teaching certificates. An even more frightening fact is that the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services found that 323 abuse complaints over the last eight years were credible. But not one of these findings resulted in the teacher certification board suspending or revoking a teaching certificate. But by far the most stunning thing to me is how prevalent the problem of sexual abuse is in our schools.
How hard was it to get information -- the right information -- via FOIA?
SR: It was quite difficult. I obtained information on disciplinary actions from all 50 states. Some states such as Oregon, Texas and Nebraska are quite open about the disciplinary process and even post their actions on the internet. Some states such as Maine, Colorado and Alabama are quite secretive. Maine claimed it couldn’t even give the number of teachers disciplined each year. (Through a lot of persistent questioning, I was able to get the numbers for 2006, but not for any of the prior years.) Alabama and Colorado just provided year-by-year numbers. But almost all of the other states provided much more detailed information.
Did you copy the Associated Press, or did they copy you?
SR: My investigation was published before the AP had moved its stories on the wire. I first began gathering this information in 2006, well before the AP began their investigation. But regardless of who was first, both investigations are strong and complement each other. They highlight a significant problem in our schools – educator misconduct.
What did your stories cover that theirs didn't, or vice versa? same conclusions?
SR: My stories are focused on Illinois, where the AP’s investigation has more of a national focus. I sought data from all 50 states to see how Illinois compared. They sought data from all 50 states to do an overview on a national problem. Their data looked specifically at sexual misconduct. My data looked at a broader spectrum of misconduct. I don’t see any contradictions between the two investigations.
How come more folks don't do big investigative education pieces like this -- or do they?
SR: As newspapers downsize staffs, investigative reporting often is the first casualty. I’d love to see more investigative reporting in education. In fact, I have traveled all over the country in the last year and a half lecturing on investigative reporting techniques in hopes of spurring more reporters to consider such in-depth projects.
How do you pull off these pieces and other folks think they can't or don't?
SR: I work long hours and manage my time well. (During my last investigation I fond myself conducting interviews and inputting data in a hospital maternity ward as my wife and newborn daughter slept nearby.) The president of our newspaper chain has been quite supportive of my investigations.
Did you encounter news of any teachers who had been wrongly accused or removed?
SR: That’s a tough one. The Illinois Federation of Teachers contends such false allegations do happen. And I would admit that it is not outside the realm of possibility.But the sex abuse investigators I’ve interviewed say such allegations against a non-family member are exceedingly rare.These cases often hinge on the word of child against that of an adult. They are exceedingly difficult to prosecute. Just because a case is not prosecuted or a conviction is not obtained, does not necessarily mean that the child is lying – only that there was not enough evidence to convict.
What if anything happened in response to your 2005 story about tenure in Illinois?
SR: Legislators are considering a measure that would prohibit secret settlement agreements in which teachers are quietly paid to resign. A bill to require school districts to reveal teacher evaluation data was killed off in a legislative committee. Shortly after the series ran, Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan called for reforming teacher evaluations.