Columbus Dispatch, Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Some schools keep records private

Nonpublic schools have no legal duty to make teachers' files available to the state, parents or other districts

Wednesday,  October 17, 2007 3:28 AM

By Jill Riepenhoff and Jennifer Smith Richards


<p>Dwayne Smith</p>

2005-06 yearbook photo

Dwayne Smith

State education investigators have had their eye on Worthington Christian High School teacher Dwayne Smith for a decade.

They don't remember why they flagged him.

The paper trail that explains Smith's path to the state Office of Professional Conduct is gone. Ohio law requires the office to purge documents related to undisciplined teachers after two years.

Now, only a handful of people associated with Worthington Christian Schools know the details of what happened in 1996 when he was accused of fondling a middle-school girl. Smith did not respond to requests for comment.

There's no requirement for the schools to refresh the state's memory.

Private and religious schools are supposed to play by the same rules as public schools when a teacher is accused of wrongdoing, but not all do -- largely because they don't have to.

Private-school personnel records are shielded by law from the public -- even from the state Education Department, which licenses teachers, coaches and administrators at most of Ohio's private schools.

After private-school teachers clear the hurdles of criminal background checks, the Education Department has no right to their information, and neither does the next school down their career path.

Unlike most public-school teachers, whose licenses are periodically renewed, private educators never have to return to the state. From the time they are issued, private-school licenses never expire, giving the state little reason to ask questions.

"It's a system that really sets kids up," said Judi Welsh, a former counselor at Worthington Christian High School. "It's not about erring on the side of caution."

Worthington Christian school leaders said they did everything right when accusations surfaced against Smith in 1996. They reported the case to Franklin County Children Services and sent Smith to Christian counseling. Smith resigned. He never was charged with a crime.

School officials don't apologize for hiring him back two years later.

"We think Dwayne is a great teacher, a great coach. He's an outstanding person to have here," said the school's attorney, Daniel R. Swetnam. "We didn't want to arbitrarily throw someone under the bus."

The loyalty to Smith among Worthington Christian school leaders troubled Welsh so much that she quit her job there last year.

"I needed to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was protocol in place to effectively handle these situations," she said.

Welsh, who was hired at her alma mater in 2003, found notes written by a former counselor that detailed an interview with an eighth-grade student. The girl occasionally stayed with Smith and his wife when her mom was out of town.

The counselor's notes say that Smith approached the girl at night.

"I would act like I was asleep. He would undo my bra, fondle my breasts, kiss all over my face," the counselor wrote, apparently quoting the girl's comments.

Smith's sin was so serious that he quit. It was serious enough that he publicly apologized to the congregation at Grace Brethren, the church affiliated with the school.

Welsh remembered the day in 1996 when Smith asked the Grace Brethren congregation for forgiveness but did not explain what he had done.

Two years later, high-school Principal Tom Anglea and then-Superintendent Taylor Smith -- Dwayne Smith's father -- rehired him.

Smith had undergone the Christian "restoration" process that included confession, counseling and forgiveness.

"There's no dispute that Dwayne acknowledged and confessed his sins," Swetnam said. "We recognize that all of us are sinners. We're not going to just throw him or anyone else overboard."

But when Welsh was hired five years later, she started asking questions about Smith. Why was he coaching girls track? Why did he have girls helping in his classroom?

"Dwayne came and found me," Welsh said. "He answered all my questions. He acknowledged that, yes, it happened multiple times over a three- to four-week period. He said, 'She had been coming on to me for a while.' "

The girl, now grown, did not want to revisit the incidents in detail other than to say that she felt betrayed by the school and by Smith, who at the time was a family friend.

"I sat in front of a whole group of (school) people and told them what happened," the woman said. (The Dispatch does not name sexual-abuse victims unless they agree to it.) "I was so embarrassed, I left the school."

Welsh asked school leaders to keep a closer eye on Smith and to craft a policy on how to handle allegations of misconduct. She asked for a meeting.

When they met in March 2006, Welsh recorded the conversation and, nearly a year later, provided a copy to The Dispatch. Worthington Christian officials confirmed the meeting and reiterated the points made on the recording."We understand that if something happens between Dwayne and a student, we will be big-time liable," executive pastor Jim Augspurger said on the recording.

"That's a risk we take. I think before God we did the right thing and it may not be the worldly, may not even be the most prudent thing, but it is something we have done," he said. "We've wiped the slate clean. I understand the situation it puts us in."

Welsh was stunned by the school's dismissive attitude about Smith's past and the unwillingness to limit his contact with female students.

"I got tired of hearing, 'Judi, these are godly men. How can you accuse a godly man?'" Welsh said.

Another counselor, Buzz Inboden, echoed Welsh's concerns and appealed to school officials to take action.

"They have confused forgiveness and restoration with pretending that once there is confession and forgiveness, that offenders should be treated as if nothing had ever happened," Inboden wrote to Augspurger in 2006. Welsh provided a copy of the letter to The Dispatch. "The problem for the church is not the victim. The problem for the church is the potential future victims."

Inboden now says he's comfortable that there are proper checks and balances in place for Smith.

But Welsh said they weren't there when she worked at Worthington Christian. Her conscience wouldn't allow her to continue her job.

She went public with the story because she wants the culture to change. She wants parents to know that abuse happens.

"It's not confined to public schools in a bad part of town. In private, Catholic, Christian schools people make bad choices," she said. "Parents need to be vigilant with their children."

Especially at private schools, where by law the state can't pry.