Hiring practices in spotlight amid teachers' troubles

When police escorted a DeKalb county teacher from his fifth-grade classroom in handcuffs last month, not being certified to teach and discrepancies on his 2016 job application were the least of his worries.

Michael De'Sean White was led out facing gang-related murder charges. His hiring highlighted questionable DeKalb County School District hiring practices which, amid a national teacher shortage, portray the district's desperation to fill positions.

White, 26, is the third teacher hired in 2017 under questionable circumstances.

One teacher was forced to resign last fall after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution informed district officials that an Ohio school district had fired her  for allegedly assaulting students. The district also had rehired a French teacher forced to retire in lieu of termination in 2016 after students of color said she made disparaging comments on immigration after Donald Trump was elected president. Both teachers deny the allegations that led to their initial dismissals.

The problems have drawn criticism.

“The people running that (human resources) department should be dealt with severely. If they’re not, then (Superintendent Steve Green) needs to walk — because the buck stops with him,” said Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers. “If he’s to stay, then he’s to look out for the interest of our children’s safety and the personnel in those schools.”

White wrote on this 2016 job application, provided by the school district through a Georgia Open Records request, that he received a Bachelor of Arts in Education from Lane College, a historically black college in Jackson, Tenn. But the school doesn’t offer a degree in education. District officials said Thursday White’s transcript showed he received a degree in interdisciplinary studies, which allows a student to study more than one area of interest.

Hiring teachers without certifications has been a contentious issue for DeKalb Board of Education members and educator groups since area districts began the practice. A majority of the state’s school districts have become Strategic Waiver School Systems since 2016, where districts receive flexibility on some state requirements — including the stipulation that all teachers be certified — while holding districts accountable for producing improved student results. DeKalb currently employs more than 100 uncertified teachers on waivers.

DeKalb County School District officials have said they turned to hiring uncertified teachers to help with the recruitment shortfall, more specifically for hard-to-fill special education and science, technology, engineering and math positions.

A school district statement Friday said the waivers also allow them to hire uncertified teachers in “schools where stability is needed and vacancies are a challenge.” Principals are given some autonomy in make the decisions, it said.

White was teaching fifth grade when he was arrested March 23. He is charged in connection with a 2016 home invasion where 11-year-old Tatyiana Coates and her 15-year-old brother, Daveon, were shot to death in their Clayton home as they slept, and is in Clayton County Jail without bail.

Turner said, “The fact that there’s a teacher shortage should not be an excuse.”

There has been a significant drop in students going into teaching. Schools nationally are short about 60,000 teachers, mostly in critical need areas.

White began as a paraprofessional — a classroom assistant — before moving into a teacher’s role. According to his application, the job was his first post-college employment. A 2009 graduate of DeKalb’s Miller Grove High School, White went on to play football for Mississippi College, then Lane College.

The Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which maintains teacher credentials and investigates ethics claims against teachers, indicates only that White passed a fingerprint and background check in 2017.

DeKalb County School District officials said after White’s arrest that two internal background checks on him performed by the district’s Public Safety division in the previous 15 months had turned up clean.

Clayton County Police Department officials, who arrested him, would not comment on White’s record.

“I cannot speak for DeKalb County (Schools) and what their policies and procedures are in reference to vetting their employees,” Clayton County police Detective Stefan Schindler said at a press conference announcing an indictment in the 2016 double-homicide. “We know what our investigation has revealed, and that will come out at a later time at trial.”

DeKalb County School District Superintendent Steve Green admitted last fall that the district had erred in some hiring, and that efforts would begin immediately to modernize the hiring and backgrounding processes. District officials said principals are expected to review a candidate’s employment history, certifications and references, as well as performing an internet search on candidates. Once the candidate is recommended to human resources, the hiring manager also is supposed to complete an internet search.

District officials admitted last fall they often failed to do internet searches, verifying the work history candidates provide on their job applications and making direct contact with references. District officials said those working in the hiring process would receive training sessions on interviewing and annual safety awareness training, and they would begin contacting boards where candidates are licensed.

“We know when people want to hide, they find creative ways to hide. It doesn’t excuse it,” DeKalb Board of Education member Vickie B. Turner said about the White situation. “I’ve never taken it lightly. When you’re handling other peoples’ children … you want to put the best in front of them. One of the reasons we have hired a new (human resources) chief is for this reason. We’ve assessed some breaches in our processes as it relates to hiring and retaining our teachers.”

The district's new human resources chief, Bernice Gregory, is set to begin work today. The department has been in limbo since former Chief Human Capital Management Officer Leo Brown was demoted in February 2017 after being absent for nearly three months.

Brown, who had worked with Green previously in Kansas City, began running the department in January 2016. In February 2017, The AJC reported Brown had not been seen in district offices since December 2016. District officials eventually said Brown was dealing with health issues. He returned two weeks later, to a position as a compliance officer in the operations division, which paid nearly $100,000 less than he made running the human resources department.