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Parents say charges against former teacher’s aide expose gaps in the system meant to protect children

Parents, IDOE not notified about 2019 incident in Beech Grove
Beech Grove Middle School
Posted at 4:47 PM, Aug 26, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-27 01:40:28-04

BEECH GROVE — Parents and a state senator are pushing for change after WRTV Investigates uncovered gaps in the system meant to protect children.

A former teacher’s aide at Beech Grove Middle School is accused of sexual conduct in front of children, but Beech Grove City Schools did not notify most parents at the school nor did they inform the Indiana Department of Education about the 2019 incident.

WRTV found Beech Grove City Schools was also unaware the teacher’s aide had been arrested and charged in the past for public indecency — a charge that was later dismissed.

A concerned parent contacted WRTV Investigates with concerns about the lack of communication surrounding the 2019 incident.

WRTV started digging and found some gaps that have parents and a state lawmaker looking to make changes in how our schools check employees and how they report misconduct allegations.

Teacher’s aide charged in 2019 incident

On January 25, 2019, at Beech Grove Middle School, two female students, one of them 13 years old, told their councilors that teacher’s aide Michael Lazzell masturbated in front of them in math class while watching his school-issued computer, court records allege.

Beech Grove Police investigated and found “soft porn” had been accessed at the time the girls said Lazzell had been touching himself, court documents allege.

According to a police detective's affidavit filed in court, Lazzell admitted that he had watched the video while at school on January 25, however, Lazzell denied he ever put his hands inside his pants and also denied that he ever masturbated while in the second-period math class.

Beech Grove City Schools told Lazzell they no longer needed his services, and he was removed from school property.

Days later, on February 4, 2019, Marion County prosecutors charged Lazzell with performing sexual conduct in the presence of a minor, a felony, as well as public indecency, a misdemeanor.

The 2019 criminal charges against Lazzell are still pending, and Lazzell has entered a plea of not guilty.

His jury trial is scheduled for November 18, 2021.

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

School district did not inform parents, Indiana Department of Education

Beech Grove City Schools did not inform parents at the school about what happened.

"The parents of the two students who reported the incident were immediately contacted by phone by school staff,” said Melody Stevens, Communications Director for the district. “As the threat was eliminated with the removal of Mr. Lazzell from school property, and with law enforcement leading the investigation, neither the class nor the entire school were notified."

Some Beech Grove parents are upset and wish the school district had reported the incident to parents.

"I think we should have been notified,” said Amanda Weddle. “I had only heard about it through my daughter, and she had heard rumors."

Weddle’s daughter attended Beech Grove Middle School when Lazzell was charged in 2019, and he was an aide in one of her daughter’s classes.

"She said he was a little strange and that he seemed like he was mad all the time, and that he didn't seem to be doing anything but sitting in a back of a room on a computer,” said Weddle.

Weddle said parents should be informed so they can have a conversation with their children.

“I’m glad it’s coming to light,” said Weddle.

Parents weren’t the only ones in the dark.

Beech Grove City Schools says it also did not notify the Indiana Department of Education, the state agency that can suspend or revoke teaching licenses for misconduct.

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

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

Beech Grove City Schools would be required to notify the Indiana Department of Education if Lazzell is convicted of performing sexual conduct in the presence of a minor, but they would not have to inform IDOE if Lazzell is convicted of public indecency because that crime is not on the list of offenses that require schools to notify the state.

“Schools and prosecuting attorneys, however, do regularly report educator misconduct to IDOE, which the department then investigates,” said Holly Lawson, Deputy Director of Communications at IDOE in an email to WRTV. “Our team first took office at IDOE in January 2021 as part of the transition of the Secretary of Education to an appointed position. We are not aware that IDOE was alerted to this case prior to this time, and IDOE had not been alerted to this case since then.”

The Indiana Department of Education has not taken action against Michael Lazzell’s substitute teaching permit.

State records show Lazzell has had a substitute teaching permit since October 2014.

The permit was renewed in 2017, and then it expired in October 2020.

The Indiana Department of Education can and does file complaints against teaching licenses for misconduct without criminal charges.

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The agency says it will continue to monitor the criminal case against Lazzell.

School district unaware of previous arrest for public indecency

Some say Lazzell should never have been in the classroom, to begin with.

Records show he was arrested near Eagle Creek Park in 2014 for public indecency, the same misdemeanor charge he’s facing now.

Lazzell’s 2014 public indecency charge was dismissed six months later, court records show.

It’s not clear why the case was dismissed, and the probable cause affidavit was destroyed as part of the state’s retention policy, so it’s unclear exactly what the allegations were.

In Indiana, a public indecency charge involves participation in sexual activity including appearing nude and exposing genitals in a public space.

Beech Grove City Schools says they were not aware of Lazzell’s 2014 arrest when he was brought in to work as a teacher’s aide.

The district says Lazzell worked for Kelly Education, a staffing company that contracts with Beech Grove.

“Beech Grove does not see background reports,” said Melody Stevens, Communications Director for the school district. “Kelly clears their employees according to the legal standard and ensures the integrity of an employee, as any employer would do. The background check service is included in the fee we pay to Kelly Education Services to provide us with substitute teachers.”

Liz, a parent of a middle school student in Beech Grove, is concerned that the school wasn’t aware of the 2014 arrest for public indecency.

“This is a serious charge when you're working with minors,” said Liz. “It's unacceptable. It saddens me that someone, somewhere dropped the ball when it's our children's health and safety at risk."

It’s not clear if Kelly Education’s background check found the 2014 arrest or not.

Kelly Education won’t tell us which screening firm they used, and the company has not responded to several emails from WRTV Investigates asking what happened.

“Our substitute teachers undergo rigorous screening and background checks,” the company said in a statement to WRTV. “Kelly Education conducts background screens, education verification and reference checks for every candidate in compliance with applicable federal and state laws, and district requirements to ensure only the most qualified substitute teachers are placed in classrooms."

Contracted school employees must complete criminal history checks

Safe Hiring Solutions in Danville is a background screening company that does background checks for thousands of schools across the country, but Beech Grove City Schools and Kelly Education are not clients.

Founder and CEO Mike McCarty said even though Lazzell’s 2014 charge was later dismissed, it should have come up in a criminal history check.

"Usually, it's about a seven-year period that arrest data is reportable under federal law,” said McCarty.

Safe Hiring Solutions also screens vendors and contractors who work in schools.

“They're held to the same standard if they have any direct or ongoing contact with a student,” said McCarty. “If they have any access to children whether they work in the cafeteria or they’re a substitute teacher, then they have to complete the same criminal history check and Department of Child Services index check that an employee with the district has."

McCarty emphasized schools are responsible for making sure employees and contracted workers are cleared to work with children.

“Really the onus, through the statute, is on the school district to ensure that their contractor is meeting those requirements,” said McCarty.

School districts have to follow federal EEOC requirements and are legally required to consider applicants with criminal backgrounds.

If a school denies someone employment, they have to explain why the arrest or conviction could impact the position, said McCarty.

“Anything of a sexual nature should be a game stopper for a school district,” said McCarty.

Schools are also limited in how they can access information about a candidate.

“I can't even go on Google, and if I see something on social media, how do I verify it?” said McCarty. “Even though there's a treasure trove of information available, there's been some really strong restrictions placed on HR professionals on how and when they can use this data.”

McCarty said schools can face discrimination lawsuits if they do not follow EEOC requirements.

“You’re trying to help people who have made mistakes, but at the same time I’ve got the care and custody of children, so how do I look at the same information and balance that with keeping children safe?” said McCarty.

State senator looks to change Indiana law

Senator Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, is a former prosecutor, current criminal defense attorney, and a father.

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

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,” said Freeman. “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."

Freeman is also concerned Beech Grove, which is in his district, did not know about Lazzell’s 2014 public indecency charge which was dismissed.

“They need to know it,” said Freeman. “Not just want to know, they need to know.”

Freeman plans to address the gaps in the next legislative session, which begins in January 2022.

“We need to ensure that everybody that is put in front of a child is an appropriate person,” said Freeman. “I’ll certainly work with the folks at the statehouse to make sure that is something we address in the next legislative session.”

Parents remain concerned as district stands by its actions

Beech Grove City Schools declined to do an on-camera interview with WRTV for this story.

The school district stands by its 2019 decision not to notify parents or IDOE about the incident involving Lazzell.

“Unless there is an immediate threat to the safety of our students or staff, our process is not to notify our entire parent group in that particular school of every arrest of an employee or contracted employee,” said Communications Director Melody Stevens in an email to WRTV. “Every situation is different and will be addressed in an appropriate manner with the facts we know at that time.”

The district did however send out an alert to families on August 4 of this year expressing concern that a local reporter posted on Facebook asking to speak with middle school parents.

The reporter mentioned in the memo is WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney, who asked middle school parents to contact her via email.

“This post has, understandably, caused serious concern for members of our school community,” read the memo. “It includes no details regarding the content of the story, so parents and caregivers are left to make their own conclusions as to what might be going on at school.”

Beech Grove City Schools plans to continue using Kelly Education.

“We will revisit the process of the services provided to us to ensure our stringent hiring guidelines are in place,” read a statement from the district.

Parents hope the incident prompts change.

“Hopefully they use this information for future changes and communicating with the parents, and the background checks on employees and contractors,” said Amanda Weddle. “I hope they're moving in the right direction and with this information now that they won't let that happen again in the future."

Michael Lazzell’s substitute teaching permit is expired, but parents are also concerned he could teach again.

“Can he turn up in another state with these charges and allegations?” said Liz. “I'm so furious. Thank you so much for bringing this to my attention. There definitely needs to be something done.”

IDOE says Lazzell’s pending charges would prevent him from renewing his teaching permit.

“Additionally, as part of the hiring process, state law requires schools to conduct an expanded criminal background check,” said IDOE spokesperson Holly Lawson.

If an educator is convicted of one of the offenses listed here, their teaching license is revoked.

“When the case concludes, we have every intention of fulfilling our legal obligations for reporting,” said Melody Stevens, Communications Director for Beech Grove City Schools in an email to WRTV.

In the case of a plea deal, IDOE works with prosecutors to include license revocation in the agreement.

Under either circumstance, IDOE reports the revocation to the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC), the national clearinghouse for educator misconduct and disciplinary action against licenses.

FULL STATEMENT FROM KELLY EDUCATION

“We are always concerned about reports of inappropriate behavior by an employee and take these matters very seriously, as student safety is our primary concern. We conduct business based on the highest standards of integrity, quality, and professional excellence. This professionalism is extended to students, clients, and our employees, including the appropriate respect regarding their privacy. As such, we do not publicly discuss specific details regarding employment matters.

Our substitute teachers undergo rigorous screening and background checks. Kelly Education conducts background screens, education verification and reference checks for every candidate in compliance with applicable federal and state laws, and district requirements to ensure only the most qualified substitute teachers are placed in classrooms.”

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