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Advocates: Schools should notify Dept. of Education about misconduct allegations, not just convictions

"It's not a gap, it's a grand canyon"
The Indiana Department of Education office at the statehouse
Posted at 5:00 AM, Oct 07, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-07 18:49:08-04

INDIANAPOLIS — A new push for change to Indiana law is underway following a WRTV Investigation that found gaps in the system meant to protect children in the classroom.

In Indiana, schools only have to notify the Indiana Department of Education if an employee has been convicted of certain felonies.

However, child advocates say IDOE, the state agency that can suspend or revoke a teaching license, should know if a teacher is accused of misconduct with a student.

Former Beech Grove teacher’s aide Michael Lazzell is charged with performing sexual conduct in the presence of a minor, a felony, as well as public indecency, a misdemeanor.

The criminal charges against Lazzell stem from a Jan. 25, 2019, incident at Beech Grove Middle School in which two students reported Lazzell masturbated in front of them while watching pornography on his school-issued computer.

PREVIOUS | Charges against ex-teacher’s aide expose gaps in the system

Beech Grove City Schools said it did not notify the Indiana Department of Education, the state agency that can investigate misconduct allegations, and suspend or revoke teaching licenses.

WRTV Investigates uncovered schools do not have to report allegations, arrests or charges to IDOE even if the alleged misconduct involves students.

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Indiana law only requires schools to notify IDOE if an employee has been convicted of one of more than 30 felony charges including rape, child molesting, child seduction and performing sexual conduct in the presence of a minor.

Lazzell has not been convicted — the criminal case is still pending two-and-a-half years later, and he’s pleaded not guilty to the charges.

"When the case concludes, we have every intention of fulfilling our legal obligations for reporting,” Beech Grove City Schools said in a statement to WRTV.

But child advocates say this “wait and see” approach needs to change in Indiana.

“The reasons schools aren't providing information is they'd rather save face than save children,” said Terri Miller, president of SESAME or Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation. “There are better statutes out there.”

Miller pointed to laws in other states that require schools to report misconduct allegations to the state department of education, not just criminal convictions.

For example, Texas law says schools have to report when there’s evidence a school employee was involved in a romantic relationship with a student or minor, or solicited or engaged in sex with a student or minor.

Texas can do its own investigation and if they determine the allegations are true, the employee will be placed on a statewide “do not hire” registry.

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The offices to the Indiana Department of Education.

Pennsylvania has a similar law that requires schools to share with the state department of education within 15 days if an educator is accused of sexual misconduct with a child or student.

Here’s a snippet from Pennsylvania law:

All chief school administrators are required to report within 15 days to the Pennsylvania Department of Education:

  • Any educator who has been arrested or indicted for or convicted of any misdemeanor or felony crime
  • Any educator against whom allegations of sexual abuse or exploitation of, or sexual misconduct with a child or student have been made
  • Any educator who has resigned, retired, or separated from employment after a school entity has received information of alleged misconduct
  •  Any educator who is the subject of a report filed by the school entity to child protective services
  • Any educator who the school entity knows to have been named as the perpetrator of an indicated or founded report of child abuse or named as an individual responsible for injury or abuse in an indicated or founded report for a school employee under the child protective services law.

“It doesn't have to be just reporting a conviction, but any incident of sexual misconduct must be reported to the state,” Miller said. “So that is where your language needs to lay, is with sexual misconduct immoral acts against students— that's the kind of language Indiana should be looking at, and not just criminal convictions."
Child USA, a national advocacy group, agrees Indiana needs to update its laws.

“You in Indiana are so far behind,” said Marci Hamilton, founder and CEO of Child USA. “The state needs to up its game here. What they need to do is require reporting to the state for grooming behaviors, suspected child abuse and any kind of civil or criminal report made anywhere."

Pennsylvania Sen. Anthony Williams was the driving force behind the educator misconduct law.

WRTV Investigates shared our findings about Indiana with Williams.

“It's not a gap — it’s a grand canyon,” Williams said. “Hopefully Indiana lawmakers will figure out how to fill it in."

The Indiana Department of Education office at the statehouse
In Indiana, schools only have to notify the Indiana Department of Education if an employee has been convicted of certain felonies.

However, child advocates say IDOE, the state agency that can suspend or revoke a teaching license, should know if a teacher is accused of misconduct with a student.

Williams pointed out getting a felony criminal conviction in a case involving a child is very difficult, which is why Williams said it should not be used as the standard for schools reporting to the Indiana Department of Education.

“Foreknowledge is always forewarned,” Williams said. “That's the manner in which we want to approach this. If there's something in your background, not a conviction, it's to everyone's benefit to investigate beforehand."

Williams said reporting allegations to a state department of education allows a state to be on notice and potentially do its own investigation, separate from any criminal process, and potentially take action against that employee’s license.

If Pennsylvania determines a complaint is not legally sufficient, the state dismisses the complaint.

Also, complaints and investigations are not public record in Pennsylvania — the public can only find out about a case once the state imposes discipline against the educator.

Shaunestte Terrell is an attorney with Cohen and Malad, and a former sex crimes prosecutor in Marion County.

Terrell also supports changes to Indiana law.

"If there are charges filed, then that means probable cause exists. and that's not easy to get past,” Terrell said. “That's a burden right there. It's not like it's willy-nilly someone accuses someone of something all the time, it's not allegations that aren't substantiated. If there's enough there to charge a crime, then the IDOE should know about that."

Terrell points out, oftentimes, suspects plead to lesser misdemeanor charges, so schools are not obligated to report anything at all to the Indiana Department of Education.

"It's a huge gap in protecting kids," Terrell said.

Beech Grove would not be required to notify IDOE if Lazzell is only convicted of public indecency, a misdemeanor — that’s not on the list of offenses schools have to report.

"Drug dealing is on that list, why is not masturbating in public?" Terrell asked.

Terrell said in Indiana, a public indecency charge involves allegations of sexual activity.

“Whether it be sexual intercourse, fondling, sexual touching yourself,” Terrell said. “There has to be a sexual act presence for it to be indecency.”

Child advocates say lawmakers also need to improve how state agencies share information about school employees and misconduct allegations.

Indiana law requires all of us to report suspected child abuse or neglect to the Indiana Department of Child Services at 1-800-800-5556.

However, state law does not outline a process for DCS to share that information with the Indiana Department of Education.

“The Indiana Department of Education (IDOE) and the Indiana Department of Child Services (DCS) are in regular contact regarding issues relating to educators and allegations of abuse and neglect,” said Holly Lawson, IDOE Deputy Director of Communications, in an email to WRTV. “While state law does not specify a process, IDOE and DCS undertake this coordination with the safety of Hoosier children serving as the top priority.”

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Former Beech Grove Middle School teacher’s aide Michael Lazzell is charged with performing sexual conduct in the presence of a minor, a felony, as well as public indecency, a misdemeanor.

IDOE also pointed out that as part of the hiring process, Indiana law requires schools to conduct an expanded criminal history check and check the Child Protective Index, which would identify any substantiation of abuse or neglect.

WRTV Investigates asked the teacher’s union, the Indiana State Teachers Association, whether it would support requiring schools to report misconduct allegations against teachers to IDOE.

“A safe learning environment for students and educators is a top priority for ISTA,” read the statement. “We support changes in law that would require prosecutors to report any charges that have been filed against a school employee to the Indiana Department of Education (IDOE). We also encourage the IDOE to use their ability under current law to receive reports from the Department of Child Services, which would include any reports involving school staff.”

As we reported in August, Indiana Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, is already looking at making changes to Indiana law.

“I’m never going to say any law is perfect,” said Freeman. “It seems like something happened here that shouldn’t have.”

Freeman is a former prosecutor, current criminal defense attorney and a father.

Freeman is concerned schools do not have to notify the Indiana Department of Education of the alleged misconduct until there’s a criminal conviction on certain offenses, a process that can take years.

"When you get the first allegation, I think the Department of Education needs to be made aware of that,” Freeman said. “Someone's license shouldn't be entirely dependent on a conviction. We should investigate that and we should want the Department of Education to know about it and do a thorough investigation."

The Indiana Department of Education can take action against a teacher’s license without criminal charges or convictions.

WRTV Investigates told you about a former North Central teacher who was accused of misconduct by several students.

He was never criminally charged, but his teaching license is now revoked.

IDOE says it will continue to monitor the criminal case against Michael Lazzell, which is scheduled for a jury trial on Nov. 18, 2021.

WRTV Investigates reached out to Lazzell’s attorney, who declined to comment.

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