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Globe Editorial

Teacher’s violent past raises serious questions of fitness

May 27, 2010

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BEVERLY MIDDLE SCHOOL teacher Elizabeth Spoon’s violent history, more than two decades in the past but just coming to light this week, makes her an unlikely candidate to return to the classroom. But her unblemished record since her teenaged offense suggests she has more to contribute. State officials, who will review her fitness, should put the interests of her students first — and allow her to continue teaching only if they are satisfied both that she is no danger and that she is an appropriate role model for her class.

Spoon, 40, stabbed a man in the back during a fight in 1988, when she was still a teenager. She was never held accountable until this week when she pleaded guilty to misdemeanor assault and battery. Spoon, who had a difficult upbringing, never appeared at her arraignment back then. The situation went undiscovered for 22 years, during which she carved out a successful life for herself — as mother, wife, trusted teacher.

Now, with the legal case resolved, education officials must determine if her teaching license should be revoked. They should ask: Can a person who resorted to such violence (there was a second stabbing incident around the same time) be trusted with a classroom of children? And should more than two decades of clean living erase the mistakes of a chaotic youth?

State education commissioner Mitchell Chester must make the final call. He’ll have some help, though. The Essex district attorney has signaled that Spoon is a changed woman by reducing the charge from assault with a dangerous weapon to a mere misdemeanor. Jim Hayes, superintendent of Beverly schools, says he would take Spoon back in a heartbeat. He called her an “excellent teacher’’ of math who still enjoys the support of parents and students.

The incidents involving Spoon were serious. One person was attacked with scissors; another was stabbed and seriously wounded. Spoon says she was under the influence of an older boyfriend. Still, it would be difficult to imagine her back in the classroom unless she adheres strictly to counseling as a term of her probation.

In Massachusetts, a criminal record does not automatically disqualify someone from receiving or retaining a teacher’s license, nor should it. Adjudicators look at the circumstance of the offense, the age when it occurred, and whether the person has been arrested subsequently. Spoon’s stellar record as an adult looks to be enough to offset her violent past. But commissioner Chester and his investigators should review the record with great care and without emotion.