GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Michigan teachers accused of abusing kids have been able to find new jobs at other school districts where investigators say they continue to prey on children.
It’s called “passing the trash.” Other states have taken steps aimed at preventing it. Michigan has not. Victims’ attorneys say the gap has allowed cycles of abuse to continue.
James Baird was a part-time teacher, aquatics director and swim coach at Allegan Public Schools between August 2005 and March 2010, the school district confirmed to Target 8.
A former Allegan student and her attorney Ven Johnson filed a civil lawsuit against Baird, the Allegan Public School District and four former school administrators in June 2022. The lawsuit alleges the former administrators knew as early as 2007 that multiple girls on the swim team had accused Baird of harassment and inappropriate conduct. Despite an internal investigation that year, Baird kept his job, according to the lawsuit.
“We’re putting our kids at risk here,” Johnson said. “Schools should do (investigations) on their own, but some don’t. When they do it, more than half the time, in my experience, their investigations are an absolute joke.”
The district eventually fired Baird in March 2010, according to the lawsuit. Johnson said that despite sexual harassment allegations from at least four girls, Baird was never criminally charged.
Court records show Baird sued the district over his termination and the matter was settled in 2011.
“As a part of that civil lawsuit, everyone agreed for confidentiality and the whole thing gets broomed under the rug,” Johnson said. “That’s what we can’t allow to happen.”
Allegan’s current superintendent James Antoine told Target 8 in a Feb. 7 email that the district’s lawyers advised him not to comment on ongoing litigation.
“But we do not agree that Mr. Johnson has accurately described the relevant facts and circumstances,” Antoine added.
In 2013, Baird was able to get a new job on the east side of the state as a vision specialist for schools in Garden City and Westland. He has since been criminally charged with sexually abusing four girls who were visually impaired between 2018 and 2020.
Prosecutors say three of the girls, then ages 8, 10 and 11, were blindfolded and then assaulted. Baird allegedly abused a then 8-year-old girl multiple times while he gave her vision tests. He could face decades in prison if convicted.
“We’ve got to step up and plug these loopholes that allow people who are systemically hurting other people, but especially our children,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to step up and make sure that can never happen again.”
After the charges were announced in February, Livonia Public Schools said it conducted a criminal background check, reference check and unprofessional conduct check when it hired Baird. None of it brought up any misconduct, the district said.
“That’s what we should not allow to happen,” Johnson said. “It should be mandatory that that information be shared.”
The Michigan Department of Education told Target 8 that when it comes to hiring, it is the school district’s responsibility to do its due diligence in performing background checks, including calling previous districts for references and information about a teacher’s past. The state said under current law, teachers are only required to disclose convictions of felonies and misdemeanors to school districts and the state. The Department of Education told Target 8 it has no statutory authority to make termination decisions for school districts until there’s a conviction.
Johnson believes when there are allegations against a teacher, a Title IX investigation should immediately happen, and the result should stay on the teacher’s record forever.
“So if and when they go to another district, whether it’s in state (or) out of state, that new entity who’s taking this person under consideration has access to all of that information so that can be made a part of the decision making process,” Johnson said.
Other states have created laws to stop “passing the trash.” In 2019, California extended the statute of limitations, giving survivors of childhood sexual abuse more time to report.
Michigan is considering a similar step now. A bill recently introduced by State Rep. Julie Brixie, D-Meridian Township, would allow a sexual assault survivor to sue in civil court for damages until they turn 52.
“The reason we chose age 52 is because that’s the average age that a survivor of child sex abuse comes forward to disclose their abuse,” Brixie told Target 8.
Her bill would also give survivors whose cases have already expired a two-year window to sue for damages.
“For far too long, Michigan’s laws have harbored and shielded sexual predators by having our statute of limitation expire before anyone is able to come forward and understand and process what happened to them,” Brixie said.
In New Jersey, Republican Assemblyman Jay Webber introduced a “passing the trash” bill after a former teacher was caught molesting kids at three different schools.
Webber told Target 8 the teacher, Jason Fennes, agreed to resign at the first two schools. In return, those two districts kept the sexual abuse allegations confidential, Webber explained. It wasn’t until the teacher abused kids at a third school that his actions finally caught up to him.
“(He) went to a private school, started molesting kids there,” Webber said. “Finally, they caught him and stopped him. The parents of the private school students winded up suing the second school saying, ‘Hey, you needed to disclose this, and they hadn’t.'”
Fennes was sentenced to 14 years in prison after he admitted to sexually assaulting six students in three different schools.
Webber’s bill requires applicants for school jobs to disclose all their former schools or jobs with close contact with kids over the last 20 years. The district receiving the applications must contact those other districts and ask for personnel records, which they are required to provide. If a school finds something and decides not to hire the teacher, it is protected from a lawsuit under law.
“There were outrageous stories of child abuse that were preventable in our schools,” Webber said. “There was a solution sitting there begging to be tried.”
The New Jersey Assembly and Senate passed his legislation unanimously in 2018. It was signed into law that April.
Webber said it has made a huge difference in protecting kids from abuse.
“By and large, we’re free of these stories that unfortunately Michigan is seeing now,” he said.
Webber calls it the gold standard for addressing the issue. He hopes Michigan does the same and offered to help lawmakers craft a bill.
“I’d encourage them to look at our law, copy it if they want, take the whole thing,” Webber said. “Listen, it’s about protecting kids. I don’t care if it’s New Jersey, Michigan, wherever.”
“Legislators in Michigan are going to take this story seriously,” he said. “I’m sure they’re very concerned about protecting the kids in Michigan from people like James Baird.”
Webber also emphasized the importance of protecting innocent teachers. If the allegations are found to be false, they should be wiped from the teacher’s personnel record, he said.
Johnson’s lawsuit against Allegan Public Schools is ongoing. Baird is free on bond after pleading not guilty to several charges of criminal sexual conduct.