The Unforgiven

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."

Says a third Pioneer employee, Gail MacLean: "I think that he's proven himself. I don't think [his conviction] should be held against him. If that happened 25 years ago, and he's had no run-ins with the law and no problems since, why get rid of a good teacher? Everybody needs a second chance."

Not according to the school district. Seigle says it doesn't matter that Ryan has not been arrested or charged with any crime in the nearly three decades since his drug conviction. It doesn't matter that Ryan received a full pardon, "the highest form of forgiveness offered by the state," according to Nancy Williams, staff assistant of the governor's Office of Executive Clemency. It doesn't matter that Ryan spent more than a decade working nearly as many days as the regular teachers. (Durfee estimates that Ryan worked an average of 150 days out of the 180-day school year at Pioneer.)

All that matters is that, as a 20-year-old, Ryan thought he saw an easier way to finance a college education than working in a lumber yard for $1.60 an hour.

Not that Ryan defends his crime, which he calls "stupid and wrong." He drove a car with a load of pot to Miami five or six times pulling in $4000 or $5000 per trip. Unbeknownst to Ryan, the girlfriend of one of his partners was feeding the police information about the conspiracy, and eventually they were busted. Ryan was convicted of four counts, of which the most serious was a general felony called violation of narcotics law.

When he got out of prison, he went back to school at Florida Atlantic University and in 1977 graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology. Needing to find part-time work that would allow him to care for his ailing mother, he took a position as a substitute at Boyd Anderson High School.

If the school system were going to reject him, that was the time to do it, says MacLean. "Why did they accept him as a sub if they knew about this problem?" she asks.

Ryan's sister, Roberta Ryan, who retired as an assistant principal of a Broward County school this year, says the district is acting as if it had caught her brother lying about his conviction. "What I was told," she says, "is that if you lied about [a criminal record], you're in trouble. I had friends ask me, 'Are you sure he disclosed it?' And I knew he had."

Indeed, some district officials seem unsure exactly what they know about Ryan's past and when they got their information. In a voice mail message, for instance, Gracie Diaz, the woman who replaced Roger Beaumont as director of internal staffing, at first tries to deny that Ryan had ever disclosed his conviction.

"The reason that the committee made the decision was that he didn't admit on his form a prior offense," she says. Less than half a minute later in the same message, however, she stops in midsentence and then says, "Wait, he did admit his conviction, I'm sorry. I'm gonna have his file pulled, and I'll take a look at it a little bit further." She had not returned several calls by press time.

Part of what angers Ryan is that he was never given a chance to make his case directly to the district's Security Clearance Committee. "They never called me," he says. "They never gave me a chance to tell my side of this."

In March, Ryan wrote to Seigle requesting information about "procedure and time frame for an appeal to the decision... regarding my employment." Although Seigle says today that he is always willing to meet with any teacher requesting a face-to-face meeting, Ryan says the only response was a letter from Superintendent Frank Petruzielo dated April 27. In this letter Petruzielo states that the committee had "deliberated your case on three separate occasions and each time has concluded that you are not eligible for clearance under the current guidelines.... This represents the committee's final decision."

Ryan considered suing the school district on the basis that the district had denied him his civil rights, but he decided not to do so after learning that even a successful lawsuit would probably cost him between $15,000 and $20,000.  

"I'm not going to pay a lot of money just to be a substitute again. I've gotten to where I've accepted the fact that it's over, and I'm not going back to work for the school system."

To Tony Gentile, spokesman for the Broward Teachers Union, Ryan's predicament is just another example of "the inconsistencies of the Broward County school district" in enforcing its guidelines. But the union's hands are tied because, as a substitute, Ryan wasn't a union member.

For now Ryan spends his days thinking about the future and trying to cope with the depression of knowing that his career as a teacher is over.

"I can survive," he says, drawing on a Winston Red, telling himself what he needs to hear. "I can get by. Something will come up. It'll happen."

He stretches out a shaking hand to flick ash from the half-smoked cigarette and misses the ashtray entirely. "You have to make yourself believe it," he says.

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