The Helena School District will review its hiring policy after a former Missoula teacher, who pleaded no contest to a 2005 misdemeanor assault on a student, resigned from a teaching job at Capital High School Thursday.
Dan Kucera, who was offered a position to teach business at Capital this fall, was accused of assaulting a 17-year-old student at Sentinel High School. According to the Missoulian, police said Kucera put the student in a head lock and sucked on his neck, causing severe bruising. More than 20 students witnessed the incident, the Missoulian reported.
Kucera was suspended and ultimately resigned from Sentinel High School. He was given a 6-month suspended sentence after pleading no contest, which has the same effect as a guilty plea but means he did not admit or deny the charge.
Superintendent Tyler Ream said last week that he was looking into the matter. On Thursday he said that policies regarding personnel prohibit him from providing details beyond that Kucera resigned.
Kucera said, late Thursday, that he felt he had been "strong-armed" by the school district into resigning following an Independent Record story about the assault and his hiring. He says he informed district officials about the incident and sentence that took place 13 years ago, but was told in order to continue with his hiring would mean holding a public hearing, which would be open to the media. Or he could resign within 24 hours.
"What I did was a big thing and I made a mistake, received punishment in court, I received punishment in Missoula — I lost my job and I respected that decision," he said. "I went on and got a new career. I did what I was supposed to, but I’m a good teacher, who made one mistake ... I was joking around and I went too far."
When asked specifically how he had informed the district, he said it was included on his application and addressed during an interview.
"I didn't do anything wrong," he said about the interview process. "What was done wrong was (the district's) due diligence, yet it's my punishment. Nobody else gets punished, but the students get punished because I guarantee I was the most qualified teacher for the job.
"I don't have the resources to fight the school district," he continued. "I felt like I was being pushed around, and power counts. I knew I would be under a microscope, but I didn't believe I'd be crucified."
Ream said he couldn’t speak to what happened during Kucera's hiring specifically, but said the district will make changes to its hiring process. Those change will include formally requiring the interview committee and principals perform a basic internet search of publicly available information on candidates, including newspaper articles and LinkedIn profiles. Hiring also will include an extra layer of reference checks and contacting former places of employment.
Ream said he doesn’t fault the hiring managers, but said hiring is a systematic problem.
“To me, it’s system level issue and something I own as a responsibility,” he said.
The hiring process for teachers involves submitting an application, an interview process with reference checks, and then the possibility of being offered a position. Kucera had made it through that portion of the process, but had not yet submitted proof of licensure or a background check. The district doesn’t offer teachers or staff a contract until they submit licensure and pass a background check.
The Office of Public Instruction confirmed Kucera also did not have a license to teach in Montana. His license expired in 2015 and has not yet been renewed.
On the application, candidates are asked if they’ve pleaded guilty or have been convicted of any violation of criminal law, including criminal conviction in the form of a deferred sentence or a plea of no contest. Candidates are also asked if any indication of child abuse has been filed against their name or if they appear in any sex offender database in any state or country.
A note on the application says applicants are not obligated to disclose sealed or expunged records of a conviction or arrest.
It’s unclear if that question is still relevant in a time where records, like Kucera’s, are easily found through an internet search. Ream said he is working with legal counsel to see if that question is required to be on the application, but he expects it does.
“It may in fact legally have to be on there,” Ream said. “There are certainly questions that cannot be asked and rightfully so.”