AUGUSTA — School officials would have to promptly report certain substantive investigations – such as drug abuse or physical abuse by employees – to state education officials under a late-session bill approved unanimously Thursday by lawmakers on the Legislature’s Education and Cultural Affairs Committee.

It is already department policy for schools to report investigations to the department, but it doesn’t always happen, a department official told the committee. The bill also codifies that the department must notify the district of any investigation it originates.

“The ability of the department to obtain information to ascertain whether an individual is appropriately credentialed based on our statutes and rules needs improvement,” said Angel Loredo, state director of higher education and educational support services. “The department believes that this improved communication between a school entity and the department is a step in the right direction.”

Lawmakers said they wanted to meet three objectives – protect children, protect due process for subjects of investigations and maintain confidentiality.

The bill would “ensure to the greatest extent possible, to both students and their parents, that school employees and contractors are safe,” said Rep. Phyllis Ginzler, R-Bridgton, who sponsored Gov. Paul LePage’s bill.

The bill was opposed by the Maine Education Association because it was being done in “a rushed manner, as a last-minute change, without full consideration of the effects it will have.” Normally bills are introduced much earlier in the session, and the department did not explain why the bill was introduced so late. The committee held the public hearing and work session on the same day, and it will go to the full Legislature next week on what is expected to be the last day of the session.

Because the bill has an emergency preamble, it will need a two-thirds vote of elected lawmakers – not just those present – to be approved, and several committee members said they weren’t sure they could get the needed votes.

After discussing concerns that the original bill language was too broad, the committee amended it to narrow the scope of what, exactly, would have to be reported.

Under the amended version, the schools have 15 business days to tell state officials about an investigation involving substance abuse; physical abuse; emotional abuse and crossing “boundaries,” which would include behavior such as stalking or inappropriate texting or other communication.

Some of that is already covered under the state’s mandatory reporter law. Teachers, bus drivers and other school employees are all mandated reporters, which means they must report to state officials any concern that a child might be in danger, so the state can investigate. But those calls go to the state Department of Health and Human Services, which investigates child abuse and other criminal allegations, but not credentialing issues.

DHHS sends a final report to the Department of Education, where investigators then determine whether the subject of the investigation should hold a credential. All school employees are credentialed, whether to teach or to work in transportation, coaching or in food service.

State agencies cannot disclose whether someone is the subject of an investigation, but they must disclose final outcomes if disciplinary action is taken.

In the last three years, the Department of Education has taken disciplinary actions against credential holders 44 times, according to department records.

Officials did not explain why they were putting the bill, L.D. 1924, forward at this time, but it comes in the wake of two high-profile situations this summer involving teachers and allegations of misconduct.

In August, former Rep. Dillon Bates, D-Westbrook, resigned his seat after a Portland monthly publication published a story alleging he had inappropriate relationships with “at least three” female students over several years. Bates has denied the charges and has not been charged with a crime.

In November, Bates abruptly resigned from his job as drama coach at Maine Girls’ Academy, and this summer it was announced he resigned from a coaching position at Massabesic High School for the fall, and as education director at the Schoolhouse Arts Center in Standish.

In late July, a former Kennebunk High School teacher was acquitted of charges she had a sexual relationship with a male student. However, after the acquittal, the superintendent issued a statement that said, despite being found not guilty of sexual assault, the former health teacher had “demonstrated a troubling failure” to comply with the district’s standards involving communications with students.

Noel K. Gallagher can be reached at 791-6387 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: noelinmaine

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