Lawmakers took a big step this year toward keeping the good teachers in the classroom by giving them a raise.
What you may not know is that they took just as big a step a couple of years ago to keep the bad teachers out.
In 2013, a News 9 investigation exposed a loophole in state law that allowed teachers accused of inappropriate relationships to stay under the radar and keep teaching.
The State Department of Education — the agency with the power to revoke a teaching certification — didn't intervene, because the incidents were never reported to them.
"We know what was happening before," explained Joy Hofmeister, "a school district would approach someone with: 'This is what we believe,' and 'You need to resign today,' and they were quietly exited."
Hofmeister was sworn in as Oklahoma's State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2015 and immediately began looking for a solution.
She and the State Board of Education were instrumental in working with lawmakers to pass new legislation to counter the problem.
Senate Bill 711 became law in 2015 and required school districts to report complaints of sexual misconduct to the State Board.
“When we have to determine the rights of an adult or the safety of a child, we will always want to do what is best for children,” Hofmeister said.
The law guarantees due process rights for accused teachers.
When the state is notified of a sexual misconduct case, General Counsel Brad Clark steps in the provide the necessary oversight.
"When we have sufficient evidence, we will place that individual on a State School Board agenda and request an emergency order to immediately remove that individual from the classroom," Clark stated.
He says the teachers are often placed on suspension, pending the results of the state’s investigation.
"More often than not, with the evidence we have in hand, and when it is presented to the individual," Clark said, "they will surrender their teaching certificate."
However, there are teachers who request a revocation hearing.
Such a hearing is best described as a miniature trial. The state has procedural requirements to disclose witnesses and evidence. If a teacher fails to appear for the hearing, then it is considered a confession.
"We subpoena and swear in witnesses, [and] they testify to the evidence that will be submitted to the hearing officer," Clark said.
The hearing officer then makes a recommendation to the State Board.
The Board ultimately makes the decision whether to revoke a certification.
Through an Open Records request, News 9 reviewed numerous cases against Oklahoma teachers and found several of the inappropriate relationships were initiated through social media apps and messages.
Records revealed details of some of the evidence, such as messages showing a coach bragging about engaging in sexual acts with students in a high school gym and a teacher claiming she knew it was against the law but was too in love with her student.
According to state records, in about a third of sexual misconduct cases involving teachers, no criminal charges are filed.
Often, victims' families decline to take part in a criminal investigation in an effort to protect a loved one from further humiliation.
"Parents don’t want to put their child through that, [and] without their cooperation, a district attorney doesn’t think they have sufficient evidence," explained Hofmeister, "but we have enough that we can do something."
Those are the type of cases that would’ve slipped through the cracks before the passage of SB 711 but aren’t now.
"The law is working," Hofmeister said.
Documents show that, in the two years before the new law took effect, the state board revoked 15 teaching certifications. In the two years since, 75 have been revoked.
Relatively speaking, the cases are rare. The state employs more than 45,000 teachers with less than one tenth of a percent deemed bad actors.
“This is a fraction of the total population of our professional educators, but even one is too many and cannot be tolerated,” Hofmeister said.
Of course, the vast majority of teachers would never think of preying on their students, and now the few that do no longer are able to get a second chance.
The state hosts an online public-facing portal where a parent or community member can check the status of a teaching license.
Hofmeister says the portal is also helping to protect students across state. School districts in other states, or other potential employers, are able to review individual’s status in Oklahoma.
“We will always want to do what is best for children and this is a way we know has provided greater safety and kept bad actors out of the classroom,” Hofmeister said.
To check the status of a teaching certification click here.
To review the state laws & state board rules for teacher certification revocation, see the document below: