TRI-CITIES, TN (WJHL) – Instead of firing bad teachers some area school districts are giving those bad apples a different kind of out by signing separation agreements. A yearlong Community Watchdog investigation revealed the resignation contracts not only help keep the actions of problem teachers a secret, but they also have the potential to help them find work in a new school system or anywhere else for that matter.

The Hawkins County School District allowed three teachers to sign separation agreements in 2014, which allowed them to leave quietly without being terminated. According to reports filed with the state, the three included an elementary school teacher who allegedly left a parent in charge of her class after she walked out during the school day and refused to return to work, a high school physical education teacher who allegedly violated the district’s social media policy and a high school teacher who allegedly took an explicit picture of himself while on school property during the school day.

If you ask to look at their employee files you won’t find a single mention of any of those allegations. The only way you can get your hands on them is if you ask for a copy of the state report mentioned above.

Not only that, among the agreed upon terms laid out in those separation agreements is that if a future employer wants to know about the teachers’ employment at Hawkins County the district will only respond with basic information and acknowledge the teachers resigned.

“The Director of Human Resources will respond to any such inquiries by stating Employee’s name, position, dates of employment, salary and the fact that she resigned from her position as a teacher with the Hawkins County Schools,” one agreement said.

That’s not all. In two of the three cases the separation agreements are not even in the employee’s file. Instead, they are stored in a separate file in Director of Schools Steve Starnes’ office. Both parties often agree to that stipulation.

“What would you say to some people that might think, ‘Well, you all are doing these bad teachers a favor?'” we asked Starnes.

“I don’t think we are,” Starnes replied. “My first priority is to the citizens, students and staff of Hawkins County. It’s not to police the hiring practices of other systems.”

Starnes says there are several reasons why Hawkins County occasionally uses separation agreements.

“It gives us a chance to end an inappropriate relationship with a staff member and it allows us to do that in a quick manner,” Starnes said. “It saves negative publicity for the employee as well as the school system, but most importantly it saves a lot of resources:  time, energy and economic resources preparing for litigation for the termination proceedings.”

According to public records, Bristol, Tennessee City Schools has issued at least two separation agreements over the years; most recently in 2012.

“Any documentation relating to the charges which the Board proposed to present as evidence to support the decision to recommend (the teacher’s) dismissal will be removed from (his) personnel file and maintained in a separate file in the central office,” one of the terms stated. “The Director will not make any comment to potential future employers of (his) regarding the substance or merit of any of dismissal charges currently pending.”

“We use an agreement when appropriate based on the recommendation of our school board attorney,” Human Resources Director Jennifer Padilla said.

Kingsport City Schools signed a separation agreement in 2011 under the direction of former Superintendent Dr. Richard Kitzmiller.

“The Director and other employees of the Personnel/Human Resources will not make any comment to potential future employers of (the teacher) regarding the substance or merit of any of the charges that might have been heard by an impartial hearing officer,” one of the terms of the agreement said. “A neutral letter of recommendation will be provided to (her), should she request one.”

The agreement also promises any evidence “will be removed from (her) personnel file and either maintained in a separate file in the central office or in a file in the office of the Board’s attorney.”

Kingsport City Schools Chief Administrative Officer Andy True says the school system does not sign separation agreements anymore.

“We don’t do those,” True said.

Administrators in both Sullivan and Washington counties say they do not use separation agreements either.

Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes says his district never gives teachers the option to resign instead of facing termination. He says his district always files a report with the Tennessee State Board of Education for every case.

“I think it’s incumbent upon school districts to not only make sure they’re putting the best instructors, but the safest instructors in those classrooms,” Dykes said. “It’s the ethical and the right thing to do.”

According to Starnes, Hawkins County files reports with the State Board of Education for every teacher who is suspended and resigns too; reports that outline the actual allegations. However, in some cases, Hawkins County has agreed to not seek action against teaching licenses, leaving the decision up to the State Board of Education.

“The report will state the Employee resigned from her position as a tenured teacher with the Hawkins County Board of Education, and will not otherwise seek to have action taken against her teaching license,” one agreement stated.

“The report will state the Employee resigned from her position as a teacher with the Hawkins County Schools and will not otherwise seek to have action taken against her teaching license,” another agreement said.

“There’s going to be a record with the state board and there’s going to be a record with the State Board (of Education),” Starnes said. “It’s going to be their call to do anything.”

In the case of the teacher who took the explicit photo the state suspended his license for a year and just last week the board issued a formal reprimand to the teacher who walked out on her class. In the other case, the license is currently flagged. Starnes says that should serve as a warning to every other district looking to hire.

“If you do this first step and go to the state licensure all of this is going to be there,” he said.

The flag is there now, but eventually if the state opts against pursuing further action that flag will disappear.

“If the State Board of Education concludes there is no state action that needs to be taken than the flag is removed,” State Board of Education Staff Attorney Philip Cramer said. “They don’t stay on there forever. It’s just an indicator that we’re reviewing it for possible action.”

Regardless, Starnes argues the teachers’ resumes should serve as red flags too. All three Hawkins County teachers resigned mid-year. If any of them look for new work he says there will also be a gap in their work history. He also doesn’t think any of them would list their former employer as a reference.

“There’s going to still be questions that have to be answered there,” Starnes said.

Starnes says parents should not be concerned about the county’s occasional use of separation agreements. Despite the wording of those contracts he says the school system’s only motivation is to help the district, not the teachers.

“I think it’s in our best interest and ultimately that’s my job is to protect the interests of the students, the staff and the citizens of Hawkins County and I think if we can separate from somebody that we’ve deemed to be an inappropriate association I think that’s a win-win,” Starnes said.

Although six teachers in three districts have signed separation agreements in recent years from what we can tell not a single one of them has since found a new job as a teacher in our region. Starnes maintains it is not as easy as it may sound for them to find new work. He says Hawkins County will continue to use separation agreements when warranted.

“We’ll review case-by-case if that’s something that an employee is willing to do versus going through the termination proceedings,” he said.

What can you do to protect your child? If you have a teacher you are concerned about you can search the teacher’s license status online. If the professional license says SBE Review that means someone has filed a report alleging a teacher has engaged in conduct that could result in state board action.

A spokesperson for the State Board of Education says reports outlining allegations filed by superintendents and directors of schools are considered public record in Tennessee. That means you can request that information if a teacher’s license is flagged. The state says while those SBE Reviews are pending teachers may continue to teach.Copyright 2015 WJHL. All rights reserved.