News Stream

Sweeping newspaper probes on sexual misconduct highlight data banks’ failures

Richard Watkins/AJC

Richard Watkins/AJC

Recent investigative stories by two nationally prominent newspapers, focusing on sexual misconduct by doctors and teachers, have been recognized as finalists for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, re-igniting public attention to the problem of professionals being disciplined in one state but continuing to practice with impunity in other states.

A ten-part series in the Atlanta Journal Constitution on doctors’ sexual misconduct—and licensing boards’ limited success in addressing it—ran from July through December 2016, and a six-part February and December 2016 USA Today series entitled “Dishonor Roll” explored similar misconduct by teachers.

These investigative journalism projects were notable for their use of computer search techniques to collect and analyze very large databases of all states’ regulatory and judicial activity to compile their findings.

“Broken discipline tracking systems let teachers flee troubled pasts” was the headline for the USA Today story, which charged that a “fragmented system” for checking teachers’ backgrounds, involving a patchwork of inconsistently enforced laws, is leaving students at risk.

Following a one-year data gathering effort that used open records laws to compile a list of millions of certified teachers in 50 states and cross-matched that list with the discipline database maintained by the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC), USA Today found:

• 9,000 names of teachers disciplined by state officials were missing from the NASDTEC database. At least 1,400 actions were permanent revocations, 200 of them prompted by allegations of sexual or physical abuse.

• In several dozen cases, state education officials found out about a person’s criminal conviction only after the teacher was hired by a school district and already in the classroom. Eleven states, USA Today found, do not require checking criminal backgrounds before issuing licenses.

• Egregious misconduct included the case of Alexander Stormer, who was disciplined and prosecuted in Georgia for violence against students and improper text messages to the, including nude photos and requests for sex—yet was able to obtain teaching licenses in North Carolina and South Carolina.

National discipline data banks—intended to control state-hopping by licensees charged with misconduct—have a long history, largely originating with investigative stories by newspapers beginning in the 1980s. Shocking exposés on “dangerous doctors” who continued to practice on unknowing patients in other states lay the groundwork for the launch of the National Practitioner Data Bank in 1990.

• Some disciplinary actions were taken only recently, after school systems were questioned by journalists about particular teachers’ past disciplinary actions in other states.

• One case took missed signals to new levels. Florida teacher Lainie Wolfe was suspended in 2006 for allegedly failing to follow policies after receiving a student’s suicide note and forging a parent’s signature on a consent form. But before final discipline action, she obtained a teaching license in Colorado, working there for several years before the state discovered the Florida suspension and stopped her teaching. Then she returned to Florida and was hired by Miami

Dade Public Schools; that job ended after she allegedly slapped a student.

• A Texas math teacher, Stanley Kendall, lost his license for allegedly soliciting sex from a student and was even interviewed on NBC’s To Catch a Predator. But subsequently he was hired as a substitute teacher in Indiana and worked there until someone spotted him in a rerun of the TV show, leading to revocation of his license.

Following the USA Today reporters’ inquiries, some states including Texas, Georgia, and Iowa, launched efforts to add new oversight of teacher licensing. But USA Today noted that many concerned child advocates believe a federal database should be initiated. A Florida Congressman introduced a bill in 2009 to develop a public national database, to be maintained by the U.S. Department of Education, of teachers found to have engaged in sexual misconduct. Although that bill did not advance here, the United Kingdom maintains such a system.

Physician misconduct is a frequent subject of newspaper investigative reports, and several articles over the years have won Pulitzer nods. Pulitzer finalists have included the Indianapolis Star in 1991 for a series on medical malpractice, the Plain Dealer in 1995, the Hartford Courant in 2001 for a story on cloaking of medical discipline, and the Seattle Times in 2007 for a sexual misconduct story.

The AJC series “Doctors & Sex Abuse,” following in that tradition, featured alarming accounts of physician misconduct, rankings of state medical boards on their regulatory oversight, and illustrations that borrow heavily from graphic novels.

Like the USA Today investigative reporters, AJC journalists spent a year collecting data and tracking cases, eventually analyzing more than 100,000 medical board orders related to disciplinary action against doctors since 1999. They concluded that every state in the nation tolerates physician sexual misconduct to some degree.

Key findings of the multimedia project include:

• Secrecy prevails in state disciplinary approaches to sexual misconduct. A history of private consent orders and private agreements with the licensing board often precedes formal discipline for sexual misconduct. Private measures lay stress on rehabilitation and may involve therapy, ethics classes, include polygraph testing, chaperones, and boundary courses. Perhaps reflecting the underlying attitude, the AJC reported, the Federation of State Medical Boards lists its policies on sexual boundaries under “Impaired Physicians,” not under “Conduct and Ethics.” Nevertheless, re-offending is common.

• Of 2,400 physicians publicly disciplined for sexual misconduct, half still have active medical licenses today. In some states, that proportion is significantly higher: two thirds in Georgia and Kansas, nearly three fourths in Alabama, and four out of five in Minnesota. One Alabama order quoted by the AJC could reflect the attitude underlying this apparent laxity : “It would be a great loss to the medical community, and to the public in general, if a physician of [such] obvious skill and ability would never again be able to practice medicine.”

• The national tracking maintained by the National Practitioner Data Bank fails to show the extent of physician misconduct. Since hospitals are required to report any disciplinary action lasting more than 30 days against s physician’s privileges, the American Medical Association estimated that upwards of 10,000 reports a year should be coming in to the Data Bank, but the average is only about 650 a year.

• In addition to numerous instances in which state boards failed to report to the Data Bank, many violations are misclassified to conceal the scope of the physician’s sexual misconduct. Among the shocking cases that could not be found in the Data Bank was that of pediatrician Earl Bradley, estimated to have assaulted as many as 1,000 young patients before being sent to prison.

In the wake of the series, several states including Georgia, Oklahoma, West Virginia, Alaska, and Mississippi, the AJC reports, initiated measures to reform how boards handle this chronic and vexing discipline problem.

The AJC encourages the public to access its 50-state database of sexual misconduct discipline, court cases, and other information on physicians at ajc- data-share.herokuapp.com. The newspaper’s “Doctors & Sex Abuse” series is at doctors.ajc.com.