BULLHEAD CITY, ARIZ.—Administrators with the Colorado River Union High School District are surprised that a police report that outlined alleged misconduct on the part of a suspended Mohave High School math teacher while he was employed in northern Idaho was not uncovered during an extensive background check when Joseph James Pagel, 33, was first hired in Bullhead City. Even more surprising to school district superintendent Riley Frei is the fact that none of Pagel’s supervisors at Wallace High School made mention of the investigative report nor the subject matter it contained when they were contacted as part of the local school district’s vetting process.
Frei says that Pagel, like all other prospective new hires into the school district, underwent an extensive, nation-wide background check that is conducted by a third party.
“Nothing in that background check raised any red flags,” Frei said.
The superintendent only learned this week that Pagel had been the subject of an investigation by the Shoshone County Sheriff’s Office in June 2010. Investigators were asked to investigate Pagel who was suspected of having engaged in a sexual relationship with a student that attended Wallace High School. No charges were filed in the case because the student was 18-years old.
The report by Shoshone County Sheriff’s Cpl. Jeanette Woodard, which included excerpts from an interview with the victim, outlined a relationship between Pagel and the student that had materialized during the 2008/09 school year, and started with text messaging but blossomed after Christmas 2009. The victim turned 18 on Dec. 15, 2009. During the interview, the victim told the detective that Pagel “text messages a lot of kids, but it kinda went a little too far with us.”
Pagel is currently facing criminal prosecution in Bullhead City for similar conduct he allegedly had with a student at Mohave High School. He is also accused of inviting other students to his house to smoke marijuana. He is currently on administrative leave from his position at a math teacher.
So how did someone who was investigated for alleged misconduct with a student while he worked in Idaho get hired for a teaching position at Mohave High School?
Frei says, the district’s vetting process should have uncovered Pagel’s questionable past, but he and other administrators have to rely on the information they are told by others. Since no criminal charges were filed in Idaho, the sheriff’s office investigation was most likely not found by the third party vendor that conducts the background check.
But what about reference checks?
When he applied for his teaching job in Bullhead City, Pagel listed three references: the superintendent of the Wallace School District, the principal of Wallace High School and the school’s athletic director. Frei says, administrators at Mohave High School spoke with all three administrators from the school in Idaho.
As part of the district’s suitability process, all references are asked 15-30 questions. Included in those questions are specific references to whether or not the prospective employee had ever been the subject of an investigation into misconduct involving a student. Frei says, none of the three administrators in Idaho made mention of the sheriff’s office investigation. He does not know why that information was withheld and the report itself points out that at least the superintendent and the principal were very much aware of the report’s existence.
Cpl. Woodard closes her investigative report by directly indicating that, “A copy of this report will be forwarded to the superintendent, Wallace School District #393.”
Her report also indicates that the victim’s mother had alerted Wallace High School principal Matt Coleman of the alleged conduct and asked that her daughter be removed from his classroom. Coleman reportedly honored the request, according to the police report. Cpl. Woodard indicates that the decision to remove the victim from the classroom satisfied the mother who did not want to take any further action in the case.
Frei says that the district’s legal staff is reviewing the district’s vetting procedures to determine if any changes should be made that might prevent future failures. Any proposed changes will be brought before the Colorado River Union High School Board for consideration.
Despite the review, Frei said, regardless of whatever background checks are conducted, he and other administrators need to be able to trust other administrators to give them the proper information about prospective new hires.
“Any time I’m called to provide a reference, I provide all the information I have because it is my integrity that is on the line if I don’t,” Frei said. “I guess I just expected others to do the same thing.”