The Unforgiven

Twenty-seven years ago, teacher Stephen Ryan made a mistake. The School Board of Broward County just fired him for it.

Stephen Ryan came home one day in February to discover that his future had been erased by certified mail.

At the time he was working as a substitute teacher at Pines Middle School in Pembroke Pines and had recently been invited by the principal to apply for a permanent position. The letter he found waiting for him that day was signed by Roger J. Beaumont, director of instructional staffing for the School Board of Broward County.

"Dear Mr. Ryan," Beaumont began. "Your name has been referred to the School Board of Broward County, Florida, Security Clearance Office due to discovery of criminal activity." It went on to inform him that he should not presume to come to work until the administration decided what to do with its newfound information.

Ryan knew exactly what Beaumont was referring to. In 1972 he had been convicted of taking part in a conspiracy to transport hundreds of pounds of marijuana from Pompano Beach to Miami. He was sentenced to five years in prison and served 11 months before being released on parole. In 1984 he had applied for and received a full pardon from then-Governor Bob Graham, a pardon that restored all of his civil rights, including the rights to vote and to bear arms.

What astonished Ryan about Beaumont's letter was its implication that any of this was news to the district. Ryan had spent the last 13 years working as a regular substitute teacher for various Broward schools and had fully disclosed his arrest and conviction when he first applied for the job.

Indeed, it had been Beaumont himself who initialed Ryan's original employment application next to the line on which Ryan discloses his conviction, his pardon, and provides dates for both.

Ryan says he tried to call Beaumont to request an explanation, but he could never get Beaumont to return his calls. The only further communication came in the form of a second certified letter, in which Beaumont informed Ryan that "the decision of the Security Clearance Committee, which met Wednesday, February 25, 1998, is that you are not employable with the School Board of Broward County, Florida, at this time." (Beaumont retired at the end of the school year and did not respond to calls from New Times.)

Six months later that decision still stands, and Ryan is left wondering how the district could consider him both unemployable and a "reliable" teacher with "sound judgment," "good control," and the ability to "handle students in many fields of study" (in the words of a 1991 evaluation).

The answer, according to Mark Seigle, director of personnel for the school district, is simple: "We take these things much more seriously than we did 10 or 11 years ago."

In fact Ryan's dismissal comes in the context of a new wariness on the part of the school board. Two years ago a new state law required the district to conduct background investigations, including fingerprint checks, of all its teachers. Somehow Ryan was overlooked in the process; he says he was never asked to submit his fingerprints. It was only when he applied for the full-time job that his old conviction came up for new scrutiny.

The security committee considered in Ryan's case such criteria as: severity of the crime; danger of employee to public; relevancy of crime to assigned duties; record/evaluations of employee since the crime; and nondisclosure on a security background form.

Although the Security Clearance Committee considered all criteria in rendering a judgment in Ryan's case, Seigle says the severity of the crime trumped all other considerations. "He had what we consider a serious problem," he maintains.

Still, Ryan has a hard time understanding why the district, which had considered him perfectly employable when he was teaching for 13 years as a substitute for $10.67 an hour without benefits, changed its decision only when he tried to get a full-time job and a decent salary.

And some of Ryan's former colleagues are wondering whether the district is doing the right thing when it gives a 27-year-old conviction precedence over a 13-year record of excellence. "I think that education has lost because of this," says Bob Durfee, a science teacher at Pioneer Middle School, where Ryan worked for ten years and where he earned a reputation as an effective substitute who never shied from taking on the most difficult and unpopular jobs.

"The kids loved him," Durfee says. "Whenever I'd miss a class, they'd ask, 'Who's going to be the substitute?' and I'd say, 'Mr. Ryan, of course.' They'd always say, 'Oh good!' Can I vouch for Steve? Well, I trust him enough to stay in my house. When I'm out of town, I give him my keys."

Durfee's opinion is by no means unusual. Janet Wiegmann, who until her retirement this spring served as Pioneer's guidance counselor, is careful to make clear that she does not consider herself a personal friend of Ryan. Nevertheless she characterizes him as "just a topnotch substitute, one that Pioneer relied on."

The quality she admired most in Ryan was his willingness to take on tasks that other teachers shunned. "The most difficult classroom situations -- situations that many subs would just as soon avoid -- he would take on willingly, often for an extended period of time."

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