Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 2, 2014

Abuse prompts changes

BY MICHAEL WALTON
mwalton@record-eagle.com

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A private tutor accused of having sexual contact with a Traverse City West High School student is the third chapter in a series of recent sex abuse accusations levied against adults who worked inside Traverse City Area Public Schools buildings.

The tutor, Jayme Jay Kratky, awaits trial as TCAPS officials implement changes to prevent further student sex abuse, incidents that Superintendent Stephen Cousins said “tear at the very fabric of education.”

Police arrested Kratky in December after a 16-year-old female student who hired him for private voice lessons — including lessons held at West High School — told authorities he initiated a sexual encounter with her during a lesson at his home last summer.

Cousins said TCAPS is doing everything it can to protect students, but people who harm children are skilled at making sure other adults don’t know what’s going on.

“That’s our challenge, Cousins said. “How do you weed that out?”

Terri Miller, president of the nonprofit group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation, said even one instance of sexual abuse is too many for any school district.

“They’ve got a serious problem if they’ve had three in four years,” she said of TCAPS. “If they’ve had that many, then they really need to start taking some action.”

TCAPS officials adopted new staff training, strengthened policies and dolled out discipline after former TCAPS teacher Lisa Placek and ex-custodian Marc Morris were convicted of sex crimes in 2012.

But TCAPS is back in unwanted territory again with another student sex abuse case.

Nepotism rules violated

Marc Morris started a sexual relationship with a female student, then 13 years old, when he worked at East Middle School in 2010.

TCAPS hired Morris, son of longtime school board President Gerald Morris, as a permanent district employee in 2008 while his father maintained a school board perch, despite a district policy that prohibited the hiring of school board members’ children to permanent staff positions.

Marc Morris listed TCAPS’ then-Superintendent James Feil and Associate Superintendent of Finance & Operations Paul Soma as references on his application. Gerald Morris headed the school board whose members hired Feil.

After Marc Morris’ arrest in 2012, district officials said they’d conducted a criminal background check, but it inexplicably failed to turn up Morris’ local conviction for marijuana possession and repeated probation violations.

Cindy Berck, TCAPS human resources director, later was suspended without pay for violating nepotism rules. Former East Middle School Principal Cathy Meyer-Looze also was suspended for failing to document misconduct allegations against Marc Morris in 2010 and 2011.

Gerald Morris said he didn’t pressure TCAPS officials to hire his son, though he did tell Berck that Marc Morris applied for a position with the district. He blamed district staff when asked if he regretted Marc Morris’ hiring.

"If he wasn’t hired he wouldn’t be in prison today,” Gerald Morris said.

Current TCAPS board President Kelly Hall wasn’t on the board in 2010, but said the circumstances behind Marc Morris’ employment and officials’ failure to pursue misconduct charges against him in 2010-11 reflect poorly on the district.

"That’s a textbook case of the facts showing, at a minimum, an appearance of impropriety and undue influence,” Hall said.

Hall said board members strengthened and expanded the district’s nepotism policy after Marc Morris’ arrest, though she said his hiring was more a failure of procedure than policy.

Morris’ conviction for sexual assault landed him in prison, where he is to remain until at least June 2020.

Training and reporting

Placek, a former West teacher and volleyball coach, pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit sexual penetration after she engaged in oral sex with an underage male student. Placek, 47, was released from prison on parole this month. She now lives in East Bay Township as a registered sex offender, according to state records.

After Placek’s and Morris’ misconduct became public, TCAPS beefed up training for staff -- including bus drivers, custodians and food service workers -- about appropriate relationships and about the warning signs of abuse.

Cousins said all TCAPS staff also are trained -- and are required by law -- to report signs of student abuse to their immediate supervisor and to Michigan’s Department of Human Services.

But training can only do so much to prevent abuse.

"These people all knew what they were doing is wrong, there is just no question,” Cousins said. “No training will stop bad people from hurting kids.”

Cousins said students play an essential part in helping TCAPS prevent abuse cases. They’re taught from a young age to report signs of abuse to school staff.

Accusations about Kratky surfaced after several female West students told school officials he sent them inappropriate text and Facebook messages.

"These kids in these situations felt safe to come to a school employee, an administrator, or counselor and say ‘I think something bad is happening here,’” Cousins said.

Tutors and volunteers

Kratky, a TCAPS graduate and an alumni of its music program, was not a school employee, but he was a familiar face at West.

He was on a list of recommended private voice tutors created by music department staff, and he wasn’t required to sign in at the front offices of schools as required by district policy.

Cousins said administrators reinforced the sign-in policy with staff at all schools in the wake of accusations against Kratky, though no staff members were disciplined for violating the policy.

Cousins said all music tutors recommended by TCAPS must now submit to background checks, just like any other district volunteer, and sign agreements with students’ parents.

But Cousins doubted whether any of that would have stopped music staff from recommending Kratky, who had no criminal history and who was a respected member of Traverse City’s music community.

It’s a problem that’s at the heart of finding a balance between keeping schools safe and making them part of the greater community.

"We don’t want to turn our schools in to armed fortresses,” school board member Gary Appel said. “We want people, and parents especially, to feel welcome to our schools. At the same time, we need people to know these are real concerns and we need staff to be vigilant about who is in our schools.”