District reviews hiring process after Hilton Head High teacher's license suspended

sbowman@beaufortgazette.comNovember 2, 2013 

David Lawrence Linderman spent as many as 40 days this year as a math teacher at Hilton Head Island High School.

To some in the Beaufort County School District, that was 40 days too many.

Linderman resigned Oct. 14, about two weeks after accusations that he had a sexual relationship with a female student in his former district and three days after the State Board of Education suspended his teaching certificate while it investigates the allegation.

No criminal charges have been brought at this time.

However, Linderman was reprimanded by his previous employer, the Greenville County School District for "extremely poor judgment" with his conduct toward a female student. Beaufort County schools said the Greenville district should have passed along that information when Linderman applied for a job in Beaufort but did not.

Greenville County officials counter that the district didn't hide anything about its former employee; the Beaufort district simply failed to ask the right people the right questions.

The Beaufort County School District is reviewing its hiring practices, but some schools officials say the state legislature should act to make sure no one hires someone like Linderman again without knowing an applicant's work history.

THE ACCUSATIONS

Linderman tendered his resignation from the Greenville district in May, effective at the end of the school year in June. He was offered a job by Beaufort County schools in May and began working on Aug. 12, a week before school began, said district human resources chief Alice Walton.

Linderman was a math teacher at Wade Hampton High School in Greenville from 2006 to 2012 and an administrative assistant for the 2012-13 school year. At various times, he also coached girls basketball, girls tennis and volleyball.

Linderman's resignation followed a written reprimand -- and investigations by the district and the Greenville County Sheriff's Office -- during his last year with the district, according to Oby Lyles, director of communications for the Greenville district.

A custodian reported seeing Linderman enter a restroom near the school's football stadium with a female student during a teacher work day in October 2012, according to the S.C. State Board of Education's suspension order.

The Greenville Sheriff's Office investigated, according to Deputy Drew Pinciaro, but the student involved did not cooperate and no charges were filed.

However, the school district in December ordered Linderman not to text, telephone or exchange instant messages with students. He also was told not to use district email or phone services to communicate with students and confer with students only in "recognized meeting areas," according to the order.

On May 10, Greenville schools received an anonymous tip that Linderman was having an inappropriate relationship with a different female student, according to the state order. Law enforcement again investigated this claim but did not find it credible, Lyles said.

Linderman denied the allegations when the principal confronted him May 14, Lyles said, but he had already resigned and had submitted his application with Beaufort schools.

On Oct. 1, the Greenville district reported to the State Department of Education that there was evidence Linderman had continued to communicate with the female student involved in the restroom incident until mid-September.

The state interviewed the student on Oct. 7, and she said she had sexual relations with Linderman, according to the order. The state board then suspended his teaching certificate until a due process hearing is held or the matter is otherwise resolved.

Attempts Thursday to reach Linderman for comment were unsuccessful.

HOW THIS HAPPENED

The Beaufort district's human resources chief, Walton, said Beaufort County schools conduct criminal background checks of prospective hires at two points in the hiring process -- the first when an application is received and another if the applicant becomes a serious contender for the position.

Neither check produced anything suspicious about Linderman, Walton said. The three references Linderman provided each offered praise and raised no concerns, according to superintendent Jeffrey Moss.

The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette requested a copy of Linderman's resume, names of his references and information about when Linderman's references were contacted. The Beaufort County School District had not fulfilled that request as of Friday, although Walton said it would soon do so.

References usually are checked by a school-level administrator, Walton said. Several attempts this week to reach Hilton Head High principal Amanda O'Nan were unsuccessful.

According to Beaufort school board chairman Bill Evans, the district spoke with Wade Hampton's athletics director, math department chairman and an assistant principal before hiring Linderman; the principal, Linderman's direct supervisor, was unavailable.

Moss, Walton and Evans each said Linderman's references should have informed the district of the teacher's reprimand, if they were aware of it. Moss said that, were he called for a reference check on a reprimanded employee, he would pass along such information.

Walton said that had the district known about Linderman's situation, "it would have been an issue."

Lyles said the information about the reprimand and investigation would have been provided if Beaufort schools had talked to Linderman's direct supervisor -- the principal -- or someone at the district office.

He added that the three people contacted for references would not have been aware of the district investigations or the written reprimand, which comes from the principal.

"When you hire someone, you need to talk to someone's supervisor," he said. "You've got to ask the appropriate people for a recommendation and ask the appropriate questions."

PROBLEMS WITH HIRING

Evans, a former district employee and a principal for 19 years, said many administrators and supervisors are afraid to share some information about employees' history because they feared defaming someone or being sued. But he and Moss said as long as a reference's claims are true and documented, that fear shouldn't exist.

"There was a time when if you called someone, they would be pretty frank about a potential problem," Evans said. "But now people are very reluctant to give a frank evaluation about somebody anymore."

Breakdowns in the way information is passed from one district to another can also prevent an employer from getting a full picture of a potential hire's background, one state legislator said.

Rep. Shannon Erickson, R-Beaufort, points out that criminal background checks turned up nothing on Linderman because he had not been charged with a crime -- and still has not. Also, the sort of reprimands Linderman received are not attached to his teaching certification and would only be communicated if the district shared that information.

"We have to ask, how can we come up with the most information possible to thoroughly vet candidates and for candidates to also feel their rights are protected?" Erickson said.

There also are questions of what and how much information to share.

Sometimes, employees are allowed to resign or do so before being fired. This can create uncertainty about what to share when approached for a reference, Evans said.

For instance, consider Charles Johnson, the former principal of Pritchardville Elementary School who resigned recently after nine days on administrative leave.

The reason for his leave and resignation have never been made clear publicly by the school district, which has said they would not release that information. No district official has said Johnson would have been fired if he didn't resign, but Evans has said he thinks Moss approached the principal with "some concerns" for which "I think (Moss) decided (Johnson) needed to resign."

When Moss was asked what he would say to a future employer asking for a reference for Johnson, he said "I'd be truthful and honest with my reference."

Asked if the district considered Johnson eligible for rehire, Moss said "I don't play hypotheticals out in the paper."

Until this week, the district has been similarly tight-lipped about its firing of former H.E. McCracken Middle School principal Phillip Shaw, who began an appeal of his dismissal in a public hearing before the Beaufort County Board of Education on Friday.

Those procedings provided the first detailed explanation, nearly a year after Shaw's last day at work. Jackie Rosswurm -- a former district human resources chief who was interim superintendent before retiring at the end of the past school year -- said that she informed Shaw in writing this past December that he deserved "immediate termination" for insubordination, absenteeism and other problems.

However, he continued to work for the district because an investigation into school finances had not been completed and Shaw had not first been put on an improvement plan.

Shaw was placed on leave, then shifted to a job in the district office for which he never reported. He continued to draw his $93,774-a-year salary from the time he departed McCracken on Nov. 8, 2012, until the board voted to fire him July 23.

"I think there's a lot of questions that the public has that, for various reasons, haven't been answered," Evans said. He said those reasons include not wanting to violate Shaw's privacy and admitted there is some question on how the law should be interpreted.

"There are questions about the grounds for dismissal and why the district paid him all that time," he said.

WHAT CAN BE DONE

Moss said he thinks the only long-term way to address such potential problems and prevent a similar situation is with legislation.

Erickson said she has asked state House of Representatives staff to research ways to ensure more disclosure in hiring teachers. Remedies could include attaching reprimands to teachers' certificates or background checks that note investigations, as well as formal charges.

Erickson said she would draft legislation to address the problem if she is convinced that is the best solution and hopes to have something prepared for debate for the 2014 session, if that proves to be the case.

"It is not unprecedented that districts and states are starting to look at this," Erickson said. "Sadly, education is having more and more incidents like this so it's our job to make sure we have the safeguards in place so that the least amount of damage is done for students and we have best educators in place."

Moss and Walton said they believe their hiring process is thorough, but the district might adjust it, nonetheless. Moss said he isn't sure what that would entail, but it could include a requirement that those checking references talk to a direct supervisor. It might also include writing notes during discussions with references instead of filling out a checklist.

"I think in education we understand that we are in this all together," Walton said, "so we protect education across the board whether it's in our district and our schools or somewhere else."

Follow reporter Sarah Bowman on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Sarah.

Related content:

Former Hilton Head High teacher's license suspended, October 25, 2013

School district completes first day of Shaw public personnel hearing, November 1, 2013

Hearing for fired McCracken Middle School principal set for Friday, October 30, 2013

Former Bluffton middle school principal's termination appeal could be this month, October 10, 2013

www.islandpacket.com/2013/10/10/2731094/former-middle-school-principals.html

Pritchardville Elementary principal resigns after nine days of administrative leave, September 19, 2013

www.islandpacket.com/2013/09/19/2692581/pritchardville-elementary-principal.html

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