DENVER — Eighty-eight teachers over the last decade have been permanently removed from Colorado classrooms for sexual improprieties – the vast majority violating young victims from their own schools.
That`s just one fact FOX31 Denver`s investigative team uncovered after reviewing thousands of never-before-seen pages of teacher revocation files.
Using the Colorado Open Records Act, Investigative Reporter Chris Halsne was granted an unprecedented insider`s look into the Colorado Department of Education`s disciplinary system.
For starters, FOX31 Denver found not a single teacher lost their license for simply being a weak educator of children. To get decertified, records show it usually takes felony-level criminal allegations or lying on the teaching certificate application about lesser crimes.
Karla Danzeisen says she spent years teaching Spanish to Denver high school students in a fog of pain pills, cocaine and methamphetamines.
She told Halsne, “I was using drugs every day. I was going to teach high. I was doing drugs with my students. Nothing I`m proud of, but it’s fact. It was happening.”
Records reviewed by FOX31 Denver show her local district dismissed Danzeisen in March of 2006 for “incompetency, insubordination, and neglect of duty,” but she kept her teaching certificate nearly another three years. The Colorado Board of Education finally revoked it in January, 2009 after Danzeisen was convicted of a drug-related felony crime.
Now sober, Danzeizen is currently tutoring 53 at-risk students inside a Christian-based treatment facility. She says her bosses and parents both know about her past. She is trying to make amends for her addiction and her past behaviors.
“The students I hurt in the past, if they get to watch this I just want to apologize. I didn`t mean any harm, but I didn`t know any better.”
Although initially angry with the Colorado Board of Education, looking back with a clear head, she understands it had the best interests of children in mind.
“I am actually very thankful the requirements are so high. That in order to be a teacher you do have to meet the standards. I am thankful for that. I wouldn`t want someone like myself teaching my children or grandchildren,” Danzeizen told FOX31 Denver during an on-camera interview earlier this month.
Danzeisen’s decertification file is one of 225 successful teacher revocation cases reviewed by FOX31 Denver. Like her, 33 teachers lost their licenses in the past ten years associated with drugs; teachers caught “possessing mushrooms,” “selling heroin,” stealing “prescriptions from the student medicine cabinet.”
Another 34 educators were decertified for essentially stealing from their schools. Cases we reviewed included:
- A $113,000 theft in Pueblo
- Pawning musical instruments in Grand County
- Siphoning off more than $35,000 from the PTA
57 teachers lost their licenses for reported violent behaviors:
- Threatening “to get a rusty knife and see how many students could be stabbed in one class period”
- Flinging a special needs student “into a filing cabinet”
- A menacing middle school principal was convicted of “punching his wife,” breaking her rib
However, the most frequent reason for decertification is teachers caught having inappropriate sexual relationships – the vast majority of incidents involved their own students.
FOX31 Denver found the following about the 88 cases of sexual improprieties which came before the disciplinary board:
- At least 17 of those sexual misconduct revocations involved coaches and their athletes
- At least 12 of the 88 in this category were female teachers
- Less than half of the cases made the news
The majority of sexual misconduct allegations against teachers also resulted in criminal convictions which not only banned them from classrooms, but placed them on various sex offender registries.
Court records show 42-year-old band instructor, Matthew J. Taylor, spent several school years snapping up-skirt and down-shirt pictures of female D’Evelyn Junior-Senior high students, aged 13 to 17.
Initially facing 36 felony charges of Attempted Criminal Sexual Exploitation of a Child, Jefferson County prosecutors let him plead guilty to a single count.
He also had to agree to permanently give up his teaching certificate.
Taylor spoke with FOX31 Denver from the front door of his parents’ home where he is registered as a sex offender.
“It was a pretty bad situation and I hurt a lot of people so I don`t necessarily want to go back and relive that because it`s pretty painful, not just for me, for them,” Taylor told Halsne.
“I made a huge mistake doing what I did. I`m trying to move on with my life now. I’m trying. I`m in treatment and trying to do the right thing and trying to take care of my responsibilities.”
Colorado Springs social studies teacher, Brent Mero, was stripped of his teaching certificate in 2011 for “sexual exploitation of a child and possession of child porn.” He was spared prison time and left Colorado for Florida, then moved to Georgia last year.
An active judge’s order prohibits Mero from being in any location where children might be present.
However, when FOX31 Denver went to speak with Mero about his case as part of our investigation, we found him listed as a “director” for the Blue Ridge Georgia Community Theater. Tax records actually list the address as the Sunny “D” Children’s Theater.
Mero’s smiling face adorns the theater`s website.
When Halsne asked a manager at the Blue Ridge Theater if she knew that Mero was a former teacher and a registered sex offender who was not supposed to be around kids, the manager said she did not know.
The president of the theater later sent a message to FOX31 Denver, saying after learning of Mero’s background, they contacted an attorney to deal with the matter.
We also informed local authorities of our findings.
Colleen O`Neil oversees discipline cases at the Colorado Department of Education. She says 98.5 percent of teachers are never hauled in front of the revocation committee. Those who do usually arrive courtesy local criminal prosecutors. And in those cases, O’Neil says the board is usually unanimous in its agreement that “they are not fit to be in a classroom or in front of kids.”
She says the board has zero tolerance for sexual offenses by teachers: none will ever get their licenses back. Lesser offenders, like Karla Danzeisen’s (prior drug abuse), can apply for reinstatement, but statistically very few succeed in returning to the classroom.
O’Neil says, “We are not infallible as human beings and we will always deal with individuals who make incredibly poor decisions – our system supports the system to identify those individuals.”
While investigating the revocation process, it also became apparent there were some flaws in the system which grants teachers’ certificates.
We found multiple cases where educators were given permission to teach in Colorado classrooms, despite having sexual offenses, drug arrests, and/or theft convictions on their records.
The oversights included a teacher who was arrested for threatening to bring a shotgun to school and open fire and another who was warned for “cultivating inappropriate relationships with 3rd grade students.”
Plenty of other priors slipped by or were forgiven: DUI’s, bad check convictions and felony assault.
Jefferson County Schools Security Chief John McDonald says doing background checks is a difficult process, one in which they spend an enormous amount of time doing. However, he agrees the system is not without hiccups, especially when it comes to out-of-state applications.
“For a lot of states, you have to go to the counties. Go to the courthouse and physically check it out and that’s difficult to do.”
And when it comes to teachers with proclivities to sexually abuse students, the task may be even more difficult, according to Erin Jemison of the Colorado Coalition against Sexual Assault.
She tells Halsne, “I think most predators or offenders you can’t screen out with a background check. We still have such underreporting rates that most perpetrators of these crimes are not identified in the system, so no background check is going to pick them up.”
Both Jemison and McDonald say state-funded programs like Safe to Tell are an integral part of helping students understand how and when to tell adults about odd behaviors they see or hear while at school.