Public records show that lies went unchecked during the hiring process for a former Victoria teacher and coach accused of sexually assaulting a student.
James Christopher White, 34, was arrested in February on charges of sexual assault of a minor and improper relationship between an educator and student while working as a wrestling coach and special education teacher in Victoria. The charges, which are under review by prosecutors, came after he admitted that he attempted to have sexual intercourse with a 16-year-old student in a hotel room during a school-related function, according to court records and officials from the Victoria County Sheriff’s Office.
A more detailed background check on White would have revealed red flags: the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, or TCOLE, revoked his peace officer and jailer licenses in 2012. The action came after he was terminated and dishonorably discharged for untruthfulness or insubordination from Mathis and Orange Grove police departments, according to records from all three agencies.
“It’s very specific that lying is a dishonorable discharge, and it is a very serious infraction,” said Karl Van Slooten, the Yoakum police chief, who was the Orange Grove police chief at the time of White’s employment.
Having licenses revoked by TCOLE is relatively rare. There are more than 115,000 active licenses issued by TCOLE, ranging from peace officers to telecommunications operators, according to the commission. Quarterly TCOLE meeting minutes show that only 30 licenses were revoked during 2018.
After his peace officer’s license was revoked in 2012, White started a new career path, becoming a part-time football coach at St. Joseph High School in Victoria and working in the oil fields.
In 2016-17, White was a paraprofessional special education instructor in Boerne. The following year, he became a special education instructor and coach at Travis Middle School in the Calhoun school district before moving to the Victoria school district in 2017-18.
The major discrepancies missed during White’s hiring process by VISD show the practices need to be reviewed, said Jetta Bernier, executive director of MassKids ~ Prevent Child Abuse Massachusetts and director of the Enough Abuse Campaign.
“People need to not look at the person’s exterior; they need to look at their past behavior,” she said. “I mean this person fell on the job – why didn’t they do the proper reference check that would have discovered this?”
Bernier works on a comprehensive, multi-state child sexual abuse prevention initiative that provides training and tools for school districts and parents and advocates for prevention legislation across the country. Strengthening hiring processes is part of the pathway to preventing children from being sexually abused or assaulted by educators, she said.
“If I was going to do a training in your state about these very standards, I would obviously zoom into the screening part of it because what people do is they get lazy. The person looks good, they sound good, so they say, ‘Eh, I am really busy, I am not going to call three references,’” she said.
Quentin Shepherd, superintendent of Victoria schools, said he stood by the school district’s vetting process. He said White fooled the district by misrepresenting himself on his application.
“I think it is reasonable for the public to assume that we follow our policy and procedures when it comes to hiring, which would include contacting some, maybe not all, of the references that an applicant would list,” he said. “And I believe we did that in this instance.”
White and his attorney did not return phone calls or emails for comment.
Many questions are worth asking about how the Calhoun and Victoria school districts vetted White, said Catherine E. Robert, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington. Robert specializes in human resources topics, including employee misconduct, turnover and hiring in the Texas public school system.
“The question here is: was the hiring manager really scrutinizing the application? Or was it a handshake deal, pat on the back, (or) he is a good guy? That is extremely common, and it is a common challenge in hiring,” she said. “Each one of these misconduct cases gives districts the opportunity to review practices, though tragically, not all of them can be prevented during the hiring process.”
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Robert inspected White’s employee application and discussed best hiring practices for educators during an interview with the Advocate. Before earning her doctorate degree and starting a career in higher education, she worked in New Braunfels as the executive director of human resources in the Comal school district after years of working her way up from a paraprofessional position.
The reason White listed for leaving the Orange Grove Police Department should have prompted the hiring managers to ask about his departure, she said.
White said he worked at the Orange Grove department from 2005-2011 on both applications and left because his role “conflicted with (his) personal moral code,” while records from the department show that he worked there from 2009-2011 and was terminated after multiple misconduct reports that led to a dishonorable discharge.
Gregory Bonewald, the assistant superintendent of human resources for the Victoria school district, said a call was never made to the Orange Grove Police Department about his employment. Kelly Taylor, the assistant superintendent in Calhoun who oversees the district’s hiring, also said she did not recall ever asking White about his departure from Orange Grove.
Having TCOLE licenses revoked would not, by law, disqualify a teacher candidate, but would have led to an investigation and possible action, Robert said. “Exemplifying honesty and good moral character” is included in Chapter 237 of the Educators’ Code of Ethics, adopted by the State Board for Educator Certification.
“When you are working with students, there is nothing more important than trust and a high moral standard,” she said.
White’s licenses to teach are now under review because of allegations of misconduct and are awaiting a formal decision by the Texas Education Agency.
What the law says
The state allows school districts much discretion in the hiring process for educators as long as they follow Chapter 21 of the education code, which includes background check and credential vetting requirements, said Lauren Callahan, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency.
In 2007, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 9, which included a requirement for all current public school employees, new applicants and volunteers who could encounter or work with children, to submit fingerprints and undergo a national criminal history background check. The fingerprints are stored in a criminal history clearinghouse maintained by the Texas Department of Public Safety to ensure future criminal proceedings involving an educator can be reported and tracked.
Candidates apply to jobs with the Calhoun and Victoria school districts online and undergo similar vetting processes. Both districts contact references, review applicant credentials and licenses and conduct the required background check to comply with state laws.
But White’s license revocations and dishonorable discharges would not show up on a required criminal background check, nor would they emerge during the verification of his teaching credentials, which were valid at the time he applied.
The Victoria district requires contact with an applicant’s most recent supervisor, but has no set number of references hiring managers are required to contact. Bonewald said managers try to contact a minimum of three supervisors from districts where certified educators previously worked and sometimes have to expand to supervisors from experience outside the education system when candidates are early in their education career, as White was.
Bonewald said White’s hiring manager spoke with two of his supervisors in the Calhoun and Boerne districts, where he had spent his first two years in the education system. White’s references were positive so a third was not contacted, he said.
In the 2017-2018 school year, more than 41,000, or 11%, of Texas teachers were new hires, according to the TEA. Annually, districts hire thousands of employees, ranging from teachers to custodians. Many variables can impact the thoroughness of vetting, such as the time of year a candidate is being evaluated, Robert said.
“We definitely work harder and faster in the late summer and then once school is started,” she said. “It doesn’t mean that steps are skipped, but I can tell you that the hiring managers are typically in a hurry.”
As of Saturday, the Victoria school district had 327 jobs to fill, according to its digital job portal.
Shepherd said all district employees undergo formal and informal training on how to evaluate candidates for hire, but the reality is the district does not have enough resources to ensure all candidates are portraying their past accurately. The district would need an additional human resource staff of at least 10 to 15 dedicated to only reference checks, he said.
“I would give anything if I could do that,” he said, “but we as a school district are not afforded the resources to make that happen.”
Problem on the rise
The American Medical Association labeled sexual abuse a “silent, violent epidemic” in 1995. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Education commissioned a study that showed 4.5 million, or 10% of U.S. students in kindergarten-12th grade, were subject to sexual misconduct by an educator. The most prevalent of those who violated students were found to be teachers and coaches.
Reported instances of sexual misconduct among educators have been on the rise in Texas. The state legislature passed Senate Bill 7 in 2017 largely because the TEA reported significant increases in the number of open investigations into improper student-educator relationships.
The law included an expansion of requirements for principals and superintendents to report allegations of educator misconduct, increased the penalties for failing to do so and expanded the definition of sexual misconduct, with the goal of preventing predatory educators from being passed from district to district in a cycle long known as “passing the trash.”
Bernier, of the Enough Abuse Campaign, likened the problem in schools to the scandal involving the Catholic Church.
“The practice is very similar to what was happening in the Catholic Church, in terms of identifying a clergyman who was engaged in sexual misconduct (and) moving him quietly to another parish without informing the leaders of that parish and hoping that everything would go away,” Bernier said.
Schools should report alleged abuse as quickly as possible, as the Victoria school district did, Robert said.
“It is a terrible thing that something happened to a child, but at the same time it is good that they acted with relevant expediency,” she said about the Victoria district’s response to allegations against White.
Court records show that White faced the result of his alleged actions after the reported victim made an outcry to a classmate and her parents, but what if she had never been brave enough to do so?
“We’re talking big numbers, you know, but the thing is that if you’re in a school environment, nobody talks about the issue,” Bernier said. “They pretend that it would never happen here because everybody is nice here. The students don’t know about sexual abuse, and they don’t know that they can raise their hand, and they don’t know that they shouldn’t feel shame or guilt because it is not their fault.
“Everything becomes under a veil of secrecy, and that is the biggest problem of dealing with this issue is the secrecy.”
The Enough Abuse Campaign, which Bernier leads, outlines policies that should be implemented, including reassessment of current policies, ensuring regular training of all employees, updating codes of conduct to define inappropriate student-educator behavior and proper screening of employees. The campaign has been adopted by New Jersey, Maryland, New York, Nevada, Maine, South Dakota and several counties in California.
White’s reported victim was among 500 local children who walked through the Hope Child Advocacy Center‘s doors during the first half of the 2018-2019 fiscal year, from September through February, to tell their stories of abuse – that is a 42% increase over the same time period of the previous year, said Ric Tinney, the center’s executive director.
“We have 500 kids that have come and told, but to me that tells me that in this area, statistically, there are 4,500 kids that have been sexually abused and haven’t told someone,” he said. “We need to be concerned about the kids we are seeing, but we also need to be concerned about the kids who haven’t told someone.”
Vetting potential perpetrators in roles where they have access to and the trust of children is “incredibly important” in preventing more children from suffering, Tinney said.
“We know, historically, that perpetrators are going to place themselves in positions where they have access to children,” Tinney said, “so we really need to vet those employees out and do a really careful check of what all their history is.”
Advocate reporter Amber Aldaco contributed to this story.