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Newton schools tighten criminal background checks after arrest of teacher on child porn charges

Posted by Deidre Fernandes  May 30, 2012 09:58 AM

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The Newton school district will expand its criminal background checks of all new hires in response to the arrest this past winter of an elementary school teacher on child pornography charges, Superintendent David Fleishman announced Tuesday night.

School administrators will start checking new employees against the Sex Offender Registry Information system to ensure that potential workers haven’t been convicted of sex crimes in other states.

Newton has been conducting similar checks on municipal employees for more than a decade, but this would be a new procedure for the school department, human resources officials said.

Newton officials will also back proposed state legislation that would give Massachusetts employers, such as schools and child-care providers, access to a national FBI criminal fingerprint database.

“It’s extremely important that it move forward,” Mayor Setti Warren said at a School Committee meeting Tuesday night. “It’s not just important for our district, but districts across the state.”

Neither of these tools would have helped identify David Ettlinger, a popular second-grade teacher, because he didn’t have a prior criminal record, Fleishman said in an interview earlier Tuesday.

Parents and residents demanded a review of current procedures following the separate and unrelated arrests this past winter of Ettlinger and library employee Peter Buchanan on child pornography charges.

Ettlinger, who taught in the Newton Public Schools for 12 years, is facing federal charges that he participated in a global child pornography network. He also faces state charges that he indecently assaulted three young girls from the Boston area and taped the encounters. He has pleaded not guilty to all the charges. None of the alleged victims were his students.

Buchanan has been charged with possession and dissemination of child pornography. He has pleaded not guilty.

Fleishman and Warren set up a team to look at hiring policies in February. The team, which included human resources officials from the city and schools, the city solicitor, and a police lieutenant, made its recommendations in a memo to Fleishman Tuesday.

“It’s always good to look at different processes,” Fleishman said.

The Newton school district already checks employees under the state’s Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) law. But the CORI checks only report criminal history in Massachusetts. The FBI database would be more helpful, Fleishman said.

State Representative Alice Peisch of Wellesley, who proposed the legislation to check the national fingerprinting database a few months ago, said Massachusetts is the only state that doesn’t access the information.

“I think it’s almost embarrassing,” said Peisch. “It’s sort of a common sense bill.”

The legislation is being debated in the Joint Committee on Education.

In the Ettlinger case, some Newton parents have also called for clearer procedures on how the school district handles parent complaints about a teacher.

While many parents requested Ettlinger as their child’s teacher, some raised concerns about his behavior during his tenure at the Underwood Elementary School.

A parent reported in 2008 that Ettlinger kicked a student. In another case a teacher’s assistant complained that Ettlinger told a child to eat a banana out of a trash can. In 2009, the then-president of the school’s parent–teacher organization said, she went to the principal after seeing Ettlinger frequently hug a student and allow her to sit on his lap during a field trip.

Ettlinger also gave his personal phone number to students. And a parent recently complained that last year, a student wet himself because Ettlinger wouldn’t allow the child to go to the bathroom.

None of these concerns were documented in Ettlinger’s personnel file. He never received a letter of warning during his 12-year career in the school district.
Newton schools will outline parent complaint procedures more prominently on its website, Fleishman said.

The district will also provide administrators continuing training on how to handle teacher complaints, he said.

Geoff Epstein, a School Committee member and former Underwood parent, pressed administrators to make it clear that some complaints require principals to get district officials involved. In Ettlinger’s case, many of the concerns were handled by the former principal, who has since retired.

“Principals are often caught in this difficult situation,” Epstein said, in which they have to handle parent complaints while also trying to be supportive of their faculty.

Anything involving alleged criminal activity is already reported to the district’s human resources department, but some parents have asked that other concerns be referred as well.

Cybill Goldberg, an Underwood parent who attended Tuesday night’s meeting, said she was “hoping for a more complete answer for what makes up a list of behaviors that should be required to be reported.”

“I was hoping for more,” she said in an interview afterward.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com

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