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Senator files school employee misconduct bill in response to WRTV Investigation

Beech Grove case concerning to Sen. Aaron Freeman

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, filed Senate Bill 115 which would require staffing companies, temp agencies and contractors to share employee background check information with schools-- something WRTV Investigates uncovered is not always happening.
Posted at 5:24 PM, Jan 05, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-05 18:31:54-05

INDIANAPOLIS — A state senator has filed legislation in direct response to a WRTV Investigation that found gaps in the system meant to protect students in the classroom.

Sen. Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis, filed Senate Bill 115 which would require staffing companies, temp agencies and contractors to share employee background check information with schools — something WRTV Investigates uncovered is not always happening.

“My goal at the end of the day is to protect kids and make sure schools have the information and that we're making really good decisions in terms of who is in front of our kids,” said Freeman.

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

He’s concerned about something that happened in his district in Beech Grove City Schools.

“I found out through your reporting,” Freeman told WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney. “You have been on this and rightfully so from the very beginning.”

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WRTV Investigates Kara Kenney speaks to State Senator Aaron Freeman, R-Indianapolis. Freeman filed Senate Bill 115 which would require staffing companies, temp agencies and contractors to share employee background check information with schools - something WRTV Investigates uncovered is not always happening.

Former Beech Grove teacher’s aide Michael Lazzell pleaded guilty in November 2021 to public indecency after he admitted to fondling his genitals while working at Beech Grove Middle School in January 2019.

PREVIOUS | Judge accepts former teacher aide’s plea

Court documents say female students, one of them 13-years-old, told their counselors that Lazzell masturbated in front of them in math class while watching his school-issued computer.

Beech Grove City Schools hired Lazzell as a teacher’s aide not knowing he was previously arrested in 2014 for the same crime, public indecency.

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Michael Lazzell, a former Beech Grove teacher’s aide, leaves court. Lazzell plead guilty to public indecency in 2021.

The 2014 charge was dismissed six months later, but experts WRTV Investigates spoke with say the arrest should have come up in a criminal history check.

Beech Grove City Schools says they never saw Lazzell’s background check because he worked for staffing company Kelly Education.

The school district says it pays Kelly Education to do the background checks for employees who work in Beech Grove City Schools.

“Beech Grove does not see background reports,” said Melody Stevens, Communications Director for the school district, in an email to WRTV. “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.”

Freeman’s bill, SB 115, would require Kelly Education and other contractors to share employee background check information with schools—something that didn’t happen in Lazzell’s case.

Currently, it’s up to someone’s discretion whether to divulge the information.

“It’s a tragic situation that never should have happened,” said Freeman. “I felt there needed to be clarifying and buttoning up of the law. I just believe the information should be given to the schools and the schools should know."

PREVIOUS | Parents say charges against ex-teacher’s aide expose gaps in the system

When prosecutors charged Lazzell in 2019, Beech Grove City Schools says it did not notify the Indiana Department of Education, the state agency that can suspend or revoke teaching licenses for misconduct.

WRTV Investigates has uncovered Indiana law does not require schools to report school employee 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.

Senator Freeman’s bill would add public indecency, a misdemeanor, to the list of convictions schools would have to share with IDOE.

Former sex crimes prosecutor Shaunestte 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.”

Freeman’s legislation also adds public indecency to the list of offenses that would allow IDOE to permanently revoke a teacher’s license.

"Seeing your reporting, it was clear to me that wait a minute— if we aren't doing this now, this needs to happen,” said Freeman.

Ashley Nation, a survivor of alleged educator misconduct that occurred at an Indiana school, has been pushing lawmakers to close the gaps and better protect children.

PREVIOUS | State revokes teaching license for North Central teacher amid misconduct allegations

She supports Freeman’s legislation.

“Every step forward is a step forward,” said Nation. "Everything we do moving forward in changing and bettering these bills and closing these loopholes is good. It's all good. I would like to see more work towards prevention."

Senator Freeman acknowledges no bill is perfect.

Senate Bill 115 does not require schools report to IDOE when an educator is arrested or charged, nor does the legislation come with a penalty for agencies that do not comply.

PREVIOUS | Advocates say schools should notify state about misconduct allegations not just certain convictions

"There's really not a provision that says if you don't do this, here's the hammer,” said Freeman. “Maybe that's something we work on. I would hope that people follow the law."

Michael Lazzell's substitute teaching permit expired in 2020.

He could teach again, but IDOE says if Lazzell were to reapply, the agency would review it and could deny it.

“If he applied for another license, IDOE would evaluate any prior acts committed by the applicant for which a teaching license may be suspended or revoked, and the applicant may be denied on that basis,” said Holly Lawson, IDOE Deputy Director of Communications in a statement to WRTV.

The Indiana State Teacher’s Association, the state’s largest teacher’s union, provided the following statement on behalf of president Keith Gambill.

“One of ISTA's top priorities is ensuring a safe and welcoming environment for students and educators,” read the statement. “When crafting new education policy, the welfare of kids should be balanced against the rights and due process of educators. Sen. Freeman's bill appears to do this, and we look forward to working with him on this piece of legislation."

WRTV Investigates reached out to Beech Grove City Schools and Kelly Education on December 21 for a response to Freeman’s legislation.

“We applaud Senator Freeman's efforts to advance additional protections for Hoosier youth through the issuance of SB 115,” said Beech Grove City Schools in a statement to WRTV.

A spokesperson for Kelly Education provided the following statement in response to Senate Bill 115.

"Student safety is Kelly Education’s primary concern," read the statement from Kelly Education. "Our employees undergo rigorous background screens to comply with current federal and state laws and district requirements to ensure only the most qualified substitute teachers are placed in classrooms. To the extent changes are made to current legislation, Kelly Education will comply with all new legislative requirements."  

It’s still not clear if Kelly Education’s background check found Lazzell’s 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.

FULL STATEMENT FROM KELLY EDUCATION ON LAZZELL CASE

“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.”

STATEMENT FROM BEECH GROVE CITY SCHOOLS ON LAZZELL CASE

“We care deeply for our students and work daily to ensure their safety and security. The safety of our students and staff is always the top priority of Beech Grove City Schools. After two of our students reported to us that they heard what they thought were suspicious sounds coming from a classroom, our school administrators immediately took action.

Our school principal called the Beech Grove Police Department, and went to the classroom where Mr. Lazzell was assigned. Based on the findings of our Integration/Tech Specialist and her review of the computer used by Mr. Lazzell, he was informed that his services were no longer required at Beech Grove City Schools for violating our acceptable use policy and we reported this information to Kelly Educational Staffing.

The parents of the two students who reported the incident were immediately contacted by phone by school staff, who facilitated any contact they needed with the Beech Grove Police Department. The parents of the two students who reported their suspicions were called and came in to the school building where their child was interviewed by BGPD detectives in the parent’s presence. 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.”

PREVIOUS | Advocates say schools should notify state about misconduct allegations not just certain convictions

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