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Mara Van Ells, The Bismarck Tribune, Published February 19 2012

Officials say North Dakota teacher misconduct cases rare

BISMARCK – Cases involving sexual misconduct by teachers are rare in North Dakota, officials say, and safeguards ranging from background checks to professional evaluations and mentoring are in place to protect students.

“We know in education that in order for good teaching and learning to take place, teachers must develop a professional relationship with students ... I underscore and emphasize the ‘professional’ piece of that,” Bismarck High School Principal Ken Erickson said. “What we want to caution teachers about is they make sure that it stays on that level, that nothing can ever be misconstrued in another way.”

Allegations of sexual misconduct by teachers in the state have made headlines in three recent cases, but officials say that many in a such short time is not the norm.

“I would say over the last 10 years, we’ve had less than 10 (sexual misconduct cases),” said Janet Welk, executive director of the North Dakota Education Standards and Practices Board.

In November, Richard Laqua, 54, was charged with Class C felony counts of sexual assault and luring minors by computer. Laqua resigned from his construction technology teacher position at the James Valley Career and Technology Center during an investigation by the Jamestown School District.

On Jan. 25, Jennifer Schultz was charged in Morton County with two counts of Class C felony sexual assault, Class A misdemeanor corruption or solicitation of minors and Class A misdemeanor delivery of alcohol to minors. Schultz also resigned during an investigation by the Hebron School District.

On Feb. 2, John Krueger, 26, was charged with three counts of Class C felony corruption or solicitation of minors. He was placed on leave by his employer after being accused of having sex with a 17-year-old girl. Krueger is the instrumental music director at St. Anne School, Cathedral Grade School and St. Mary’s Grade School in Bismarck.

Laqua and Schultz have pleaded not guilty and are slated to stand trial in May. Krueger has not yet entered a plea to the charges he faces.

Since 2009, potential teachers have been required to submit to background checks to begin student teaching. The requirement for more background checks for school employees was approved by the state Legislature as a result of the killing of Valley City State University student Mindy Morgenstern, 22, of New Salem, by a man who worked as a campus security guard, Welk said. The background checks are administered through the Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the FBI.

“If anyone has been convicted of a sex crime or a crime against a child, they don’t get a license, and if they do have a license, it’s automatically revoked,” Welk said.

Laqua, Schultz and Krueger have not been convicted; therefore their cases have not yet gone before the Education Standards and Practices Board.

“The board always waits until criminal proceedings have progressed,” Welk said. “They haven’t gone through due process yet.”

The Code of Professional Conduct for Educators, which governs all members of the teaching profession, says educators “shall not engage in physical abuse of a student or sexual conduct with a student and shall report to the education standards and practices board knowledge of such an act by an educator.” Most institutions go over the ethics code in a seminar prior to the beginning of student teaching, Welk said.

Rod Jonas, dean of the School of Education and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Mary, said student teachers are evaluated on their knowledge, skills and disposition, which Jonas described as their attitude toward teaching and their students. The evaluations are conducted by cooperating teachers and a university supervisor.

Colleges must recommend potential teachers to the board before they can get licenses.

“Obviously, you can’t look into the heart of a person to know what’s going on,” Jonas said. “There are safeguards along the way ... (but) people are people.”

Overseeing the educators once they are hired is up to the school district, Welk said.

“North Dakota is a very local control state. We leave that up to the local district,” Welk said, adding that educators who have a five-year lapse between education jobs must apply for a re-entry license.

Lisa Kudelka, human resource manager with Bismarck Public Schools, said new teachers go through a four-day orientation before they start working in the district. One of the topics covered is appropriate and inappropriate relations between students and teachers. For the first two years in the district, teachers are placed in a mentoring program in which the subject “continues to be a topic of conversation,” she said.

Kudelka said everyone employed by Bismarck Public Schools must go through a background check. Teachers do it through their licensing process. The requirement also covers staff members such as secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, instructional aides and social workers.

The district also uses the attorney general’s published sex offender list, Kudelka said.

“We go through the list and compare it to anyone working in our school district,” she said.

Principals are in charge of overseeing their teachers and having conversations with students about appropriate student-teacher relationships, Kudelka said.

If parents have suspicions or worry about an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and student, they should get in touch with the building principal to see if there is cause for the school to investigate, Erickson said.

Teachers are instructed not to put themselves in vulnerable positions, Kudelka said. For example, if a teacher is taking students on an overnight field trip, the teacher might want to have a second chaperone. If a teacher wishes to take a group of kids to an event or activity such as a baseball game, arrangements would have to be made through the school.

“You may feel bad that a kid doesn’t have a ride home. But you don’t give a ride home unless you have a parent’s permission,” Kudelka said.

Sue Skalicky, an English and journalism instructor at Bismarck Century High School, said she always is conscious of perception when interacting with students. As the journalism adviser, Skalicky travels to conventions and competitions with students four times a year. She takes both boys and girls on the trips, and a chaperone usually accompanies her unless there are fewer than 12 students.

“Traveling is a little tricky. I’m very cautious about that,” Skalicky said, adding that she never has students meet in her room, preferring that they meet as a group in the lobby instead.

“I want to have relationships but remain professional,” Skalicky said, adding that she believes students do better in school if they are able to connect with their teachers.

“I did not go into teaching to meet friends but to be a positive adult influence in student’s lives,” she said.

“My opinion is that we are a public school,” Erickson said. “We’re all here for a joint, collaborative effort to educate your child to the best of our ability ... As a parent and a grandparent and all of that, that’s not just a reasonable expectation. That’s the way it ought to be.”