[Updated 2017-04-12] The video from last night’s broadcast is embedded at the bottom of the page in two separate segments.
April 11 — Barring any sudden dramatic developments in the Middle East or elsewhere, the ABC news show “Nightline” will run a special edition this evening on the phenomenon known as “passing the trash.” The show is scheduled to begin at 12:35 a.m. EST.
Earlier today, Good Morning America ran a preview of the special:
According to the summary article posted by ABC News, the show will focus on the stories of two survivors of educator sexual abuse, Chelsea Burkett and Nallely Hernandez. The two women have agreed to speak publicly with Nightline in an effort to draw attention to the “passing the trash” problem. As explained by ABC, the phrase is used to describe the practice of allowing educators accused of sexual misconduct to resign their positions in exchange for a confidentiality agreement that bars the school district and administrators from telling other prospective employers what took place.
To be fair, many school districts are not willing to enter into such agreements — as this blog demonstrates, numerous teachers are prosecuted for sexual misconduct every year. However, many districts are motivated to do so in an effort to avoid bad publicity, to minimize the risk of litigation, and frankly, to simply wash their hands of a problem teacher. A recent investigation by USA Today reporter Steve Reilly uncovered “more than 100 teachers who lost their licenses but are still working with children today.”
Despite decades of repeated sex abuse scandals — from the Roman Catholic Church to the Boy Scouts to scores of news media reports identifying problem teachers — America’s public schools continue to conceal the actions of dangerous educators in ways that allow them to stay in the classroom.
A year-long USA TODAY Network investigation found that education officials put children in harm’s way by covering up evidence of abuse, keeping allegations secret and making it easy for abusive teachers to find jobs elsewhere.
Burkett was one of at least four young women sexually harassed or assaulted by Joseph Koetters, a well-liked teacher of English at a prestigious all-girls school in Los Angeles called Marlborough. In October 2015, after a year-long investigation and prosecution sparked by Burkett’s allegations of abuse, Koetters accepted a deal with prosecutors in which he plead guilty to 4 counts of sexual abuse (down from the original 14). He could have been sentenced to 11 years in prison but instead was sentenced to just a single year. He was also given five years probation and required to register as a sex offender. (Prosecutors justified the relatively lenient deal by noting that it saved the victims the emotional pain of testifying at trial.)
In many ways, Koetters has become a no doubt unwilling poster child for “passing the trash” malfeasance. Burkett is currently suing Koetters, Marlborough, and another private school called Viewpoint. She alleges that Koetters had “a pattern of bad behavior” beginning at Viewpoint and that Viewpoint failed to alert Marlborough when it hired Koetters. Both schools have denied the charges.
The saga did not end at Marlborough; Koetters worked there for 14 years and then in 2013, moved to the Polytechnic School, another leading private school in the LA area. His departure from Marlborough came shortly after another student, Melissa Gilbert-Lurie, alleged in 2012 that Koetters had acted inappropriately with her during the previous school year. However, despite the seriousness of the charges, Marlborough did not take any legal action against Koetters and apparently did not conduct a contemporaneous investigation; instead, the school simply stripped him of his chairmanship of the English Department and ordered him to not have any contact with Gilbert-Lurie.
Perhaps sparked by the news of Koetters’s move to Polytechnic, Gilbert-Lurie wrote an essay in June 2014 for xoJane about the harassment Koetters inflicted on her in 2011. Her decision to go public for the first time with what had happened to her in turn inspired Burkett to report her much more serious abuse to Marlborough officials in 2014. That report triggered the series of events that led eventually to Koetters’s prosecution and imprisonment.
The bulk of the credit for bringing attention to this issue obviously goes to the young women (and men) who find the courage to tell their stories to family, friends, administrators, and law enforcement. The Nightline piece, however, will also provide offer some deserved recognition to the organization Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation (S.E.S.A.M.E.), which has been working for years to promote and pass legislation aimed at prohibiting the use of confidential agreements in instances of sexual misconduct and violence, requiring the honest sharing of information among education employers, and “mandating annual training of all school community stakeholders to recognize and report sexual misconduct.”
I have had the pleasure of serving on the S.E.S.A.M.E. Board of Advisors for the past several years and hope that tonight’s Nightline broadcast will provide a much-needed boost to the organization’s lobbying efforts.