Chemistry teacher and cheerleading coach Mark Krockover was reprimanded over his conduct toward female students, but it took several years before Maine Township High School District 207 tried to fire him.
The school board cited "immoral and cruel conduct," alleging Krockover rubbed the legs, thighs and backs of girls, caressed their arms and shoulders and kissed them on the head, causing many to quit cheerleading. He allegedly emailed and texted students, visited some at their jobs and even bought some girls bikinis and designer jeans, records state.
Ultimately, Krockover, 43, of Park Ridge, was allowed to resign. The school district paid him $60,000 as part of his "resignation agreement," stored disciplinary records in a confidential file and agreed to tell future employers he resigned for "personal reasons," according to district records.
In March 2011 — more than three years after his resignation and after repeated delays and legal challenges — the state suspended Krockover's license to teach for 30 months. He will be eligible to return to the classroom this fall.
The state's system of licensing, hiring and disciplining educators is supposed to bar teachers involved in misconduct from the classroom. But thousands of pages of court and police records, state and local documents and personnel files obtained by the Tribune reveal breakdowns in protecting students.
The shortcomings — including secrecy, hiring loopholes, communication lapses, lax background checks and delays in disciplinary action — have allowed some educators involved in improper, and in some cases criminal, conduct to stay in classrooms or get other jobs that provide access to students, the newspaper found.
The Tribune found at least a half dozen educators still with access to students, though their licenses had been revoked or suspended stemming from misconduct cases. Among them:
Science teacher Stephen Wright landed jobs in at least six public school districts, two community colleges and a private college after Downers Grove-based Community High School District 99 fired him in 2002 for "inappropriately touching female students and making sexually explicit comments in the classroom," according to state revocation records.
Unaware of that history, one district allowed Wright, 51, of Plainfield, to substitute without checking his references. Another let him sub even after the state revoked his license to teach in 2009. Since 2010, Wright has been tutoring and teaching at Joliet Junior College, which doesn't require a teaching license.
Dennis Hansen, a teacher and coach at Kaneland Community Unit School District 302 in Maple Park, was accused by the district of "inappropriate physical contact with female students," as well as excessively texting certain female students, visiting their homes and giving them "inappropriate gifts." He was allowed to resign, and the district agreed to disclose only his positions, employment dates and his resignation at the end of 2008-09, according to the separation agreement.
The state suspended his teaching license for 18 months, beginning in September 2012. By then, Hansen, 49, had moved to South Carolina, where he got a teaching license and a job at a public high school. He also became a volunteer college women's softball coach. South Carolina didn't know Hansen's Illinois license was suspended until the Tribune inquired.
Jennifer Espinosa, a former science teacher in Maine Township High School District 207, was arrested in May 2009 on charges of having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old former student. In a plea deal, prosecutors dropped sexual abuse charges, and Espinosa pleaded guilty to a felony aggravated battery charge. She got 30 months' probation and agreed to surrender her teaching license.
But the state didn't revoke her license until March 2012 because prosecutors failed to send the required paperwork until more than a year after her conviction.
Espinosa, 42, of Park Ridge, went on to teach at a private dance studio in Des Plaines, which serves children as well as adults.
Special education teacher Laurie Margotta was on staff at Valley View School District 365U in Will County when she was arrested in 2010. Police had investigated her relationship with an eighth-grade boy.
Margotta, 47, of Plainfield, pleaded guilty to misdemeanor distribution of harmful materials — nude pictures of herself — to a minor and agreed to give up her teaching certificate, according to court and police records. Earlier this year, she began volunteering for Literacy DuPage, a nonprofit tutoring center that receives some government funds and serves adults and teens who are at least 16 and not in school. The center, an official said, doesn't perform criminal background checks.
One organization, Nevada-based Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, is pushing federal legislation to compel districts to disclose allegations of sexual misconduct in employment references and to prohibit confidentiality agreements. Similar legislation has been elusive in Illinois, though some safeguards have been added in recent years.
Terri Miller, president of the group, said it's not shocking that some teachers disciplined for sexual misconduct find ways to get back to the classroom or work with children in other settings. Problem teachers, she said, "gravitate to a place where they have the least scrutiny possible. Parents think they are placing children in a safe environment, but they are often mistaken."
'A horrible practice'
The Tribune reviewed about 180 state revocation and suspension cases from 2008 to early 2013, finding at least 113 that were related to inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature.
About 85 percent of those sexually oriented cases stemmed from criminal charges. But the state also pursued discipline of educators who weren't charged with crimes, as with Krockover, Hansen and Wright.
The revocations and suspensions involve a fraction of all educators — Illinois has about 135,000 teachers, as well as other licensed staff. But they likely don't reveal the depth of what experts call a national problem.
A 2004 U.S. Department of Education report estimated 4.5 million students out of 50 million across the country are "subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade."
Dave Clarkin, an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services spokesman, said 70 percent of abuse or neglect cases go unreported. And when they are reported, "children have already told an average of seven adults before authorities are notified," he said.
DCFS has conducted nearly 3,000 investigations of educators and school staff from 2008 through early 2013, according to agency records.
The total jumped almost 24 percent from 2011 to 2012, agency data show, an increase attributed in part to the Penn State sex abuse scandal, which raised awareness. A minority of the investigations are "indicated," meaning DCFS uncovered credible evidence of abuse or neglect.
DCFS reports the indicated findings to the Illinois State Board of Education for possible discipline. The state board also relies on communication from school districts, courts, media and other tips to develop revocation and suspension cases.
In 2012, the state board received from DCFS 75 indicated cases to review, up from 49 the year before.
A 2010 report on teacher sexual misconduct by the Government Accountability Office that included Illinois found repeated examples in which officials allowed problem teachers to resign rather than be fired, often providing future employers with positive references.
Administrators said it could cost up to $100,000 to fire a teacher, even with a "slam-dunk case," according to the federal report. It found districts feared lawsuits and that it was easier to remove a problem teacher informally in order to protect the children in their own district.
"The district's first responsibility is to resolve the employment situation in a way that protects its students and taxpayers," said David Beery, spokesman for Maine District 207, where Krockover was able to resign after "complaints of sexual harassment (were) brought by seven current and former female ... students," records show.
Beery said the resignation agreement cost significantly less than a formal dismissal, adding that "numerous students would not have to testify and face their former teacher and/or coach in the dismissal proceeding."
District 207 reported Krockover to DCFS — a legal requirement if abuse or neglect is suspected, but Beery said the agency declined to investigate.
However, DCFS' Clarkin said the agency was unable to initiate an investigation because of a lack of information provided by the district.
"We are just now learning that a staff member responsible for the welfare of children was allegedly buying expensive gifts for children in his care that included trips and bikinis, allegedly discussing sexual topics with children, and allegedly persisted in making unwanted physical contact with children after they asked him to stop, all three of which are warning signs," he said.
Krockover could not be reached for comment. In public documents, he admitted to friendly hugs, texts, emails and other personal contact with female students, but said the conduct was never inappropriate.
Last year, the Illinois Supreme Court weighed in on the case of Jonathan White, 32, a central Illinois elementary school teacher in prison for molesting 10 girls at schools in Normal and Urbana from 2004 to 2006. He pleaded guilty in 2008.
White was forced to resign from Normal's McLean County Unit District 5 after parent complaints and two suspensions for viewing pornography at school and making suggestive remarks to a fifth-grader. Justices ruled Normal district administrators could be sued for failing to disclose White's full background to the Urbana school district.
Champaign attorney Ellyn Bullock, who represents some of White's victims, said "passing" — letting an educator move to another district without revealing a history of sexual harassment, grooming or abuse — "is a horrible practice but very widespread."
In response to the White case, state lawmakers considered legislation to stop the "passing" practice. It failed, but a compromise requires school officials, upon request, to inform future employers whether an educator was involved in a prior DCFS indicated investigation.
Officials at the State Board of Education, which oversees revocation and suspension, said the system has improved with an influx of nearly $1.7 million since 2008-09 for hearing officers and an outside law firm to help investigate cases. Strengthened subpoena powers and the recent addition of an in-house investigator also have helped, officials said.
Still, the number of revocations and suspensions in 2012 — 43 — is the same as it was in 2008. The types of cases vary, education officials said, and the more current ones likely were more time-consuming.
"The state system was not perfect by any stretch, and it's not perfect now," said the agency's general counsel, Nicki Bazer. But "teachers should really be on notice. They really are not safe in the classroom if they're doing this kind of misconduct. I think they're beginning to understand we are on the case."
After the Tribune's inquiries, several school officials have taken action.
South Carolina officials on Aug. 14 suspended Dennis Hansen's teaching certificate "to coincide with the Illinois suspension," education spokesman Jay Ragley said. Hansen also submitted a resignation to his public school district, Ragley said.
Hansen earlier told the Tribune that the allegations in Kaneland 302 were politically motivated, stemming from his discipline of a couple of girls on the softball team he coached.
"I had to get out of there," he said. "People were saying things I didn't do."
At Literacy DuPage, former Executive Director Tana Tatnall, who was in charge when Laurie Margotta began tutoring, said Margotta has tutored only adults in a library setting. She wasn't aware of Margotta's criminal case, saying the nonprofit "just can't afford" to do criminal background checks.
Margotta is suing her former psychiatrist, alleging he misdiagnosed her and prescribed medications in high dosages without monitoring. In her lawsuit, she said that led to activity that had "a high potential for painful consequences; specifically sexual indiscretions."
Margotta insists she poses no threat to children but wouldn't want to return to a traditional classroom.
The owner of the dance studio where Jennifer Espinosa worked said she recently dismissed the former teacher after the Tribune's inquiries and that she had been unaware of the conviction. Espinosa couldn't be reached for comment. Joliet Junior College human resources director Joyce Coleman said she is considering changes to hiring practices after the Tribune's inquiry about Stephen Wright, including proposing a way to gather information from references about whether an applicant's professional license has been revoked.
Records in Wright's dismissal and revocation hearings allege he inappropriately touched students as well as asked them in class to "shout out synonyms for oral sex."
After his 2002 firing, Wright was dismissed from two other districts for failing to be forthcoming about his background, records show. He resigned from another Illinois district, where he "had come under suspicion for having acted in an inappropriate manner toward students," according to records.
Wright told the Tribune he did not want to discuss his past. "I've moved on since then, I think in a positive way," he said. "I recognize that I made mistakes, and I took a different direction in my life. It has been an arduous journey."
In Wright's case, the state sent notice of his 2009 revocation to Cook County, where he previously worked. At the time, he was substituting in Will County and he kept subbing in Lockport Township High School District 205 after his license was revoked, records show. The district said it was never informed.
Will County Regional Education Superintendent Shawn Walsh is reviewing procedures in his office after failing to receive notification of the revocation, saying he plans to periodically check to see if teachers on the county's substitute list have active licenses.
"This has opened my eyes," he said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun