January 14, 2013

18 SC teachers cited in 2 years for sexual offenses against students

When the State Board of Education suspended Dreher High School teacher Kinsley Wentzky's teaching certificate, she became the 18th S.C. teacher in two years to be disciplined over allegations of having sex with students.

When the State Board of Education suspended Dreher High School teacher Kinsley Wentzky's teaching certificate, she became the 18th S.C. teacher in two years to be disciplined over allegations of having sex with students.

Wentzky's teaching certificate was suspended Wednesday by the state education board after she was arrested on two charges of sexual battery with a student 16 or 17 years old for alleged relationships with two male students. The charges were filed by Columbia and Forest Acres police departments.

She was the first S.C. teacher to have a certificate suspended this year and the first to be charged by Columbia police for having felony sex with a student 16 or older under a 2010 law.

Wentzky, 34, remains on administrative leave with pay as Richland 1 officials conduct an investigation into her alleged sexual relationships with the boys, said Karen York, a school district spokeswoman. District officials notified the state education board as soon as Wentzky was arrested.

Wentzky's attorney, Ed “Punky” Holler, said Friday that he was not aware that his client's certification had been suspended, and he was not sure his client had received notice, either. He declined comment on the pending charges.

“In my opinion, it's an ongoing investigation, and I don't believe it's proper for me to discuss it at this time,” Holler said.

The state board took some form of disciplinary action in 143 cases involving educators between Jan. 1, 2011, and Jan. 9, 2013. Disciplinary actions can be a suspension, a reprimand or a revocation. During that same two-year period, 20 teachers had their certificates reinstated, according to education department records.

The teachers were disciplined for a variety of reasons, ranging from coming to school while drunk to defaulting on loans for teacher certification exam fees.

The 18 teachers suspended over sex allegations were varied, too.

For example, Michelle Stabach Jensen, a J.L. Mann High School science teacher, was suspended in November after she was charged with disseminating obscene material to a person under 18 years of age and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Jensen allegedly sent obscene text messages and photographs of herself to a male student at the school, according to her suspension notice. Shortly after her suspension, Greenville police charged her with sexual battery with a student.

Sexual battery with a student became a crime in June 2010 after educators asked lawmakers to make it illegal for teachers to have sex with their students no matter the student's age. No figures were immediately available for how many teachers have been charged under that law.

But Wentzky's arrest was the first time Columbia police have arrested someone on that charge, said Jennifer Timmons, the department's spokeswoman.

In South Carolina, 16 is the age of consent. So teachers who engage in sexual activity with students who are 15 and younger face felony rape charges — just like any other adult would.

It's when students are 16, 17 and 18 that the charge of sexual battery with a student comes into play.

Teachers are in authority over students who are old enough to consent to a sexual relationship, but that does not make those relationships acceptable, said Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council and one of the law's architects. School districts wanted a law that would back up their policies that forbid relationships between teachers and students no matter how old the students are, she said.

“When someone is subject to someone else's authority, it cannot be considered consensual,” Hudson said.

The law has two sections addressing relationships between school officials and students who are 18 or older. If the school official has a direct supervisory authority over the student such as serving as a classroom teacher or coach, then a sexual relationship is a felony. If the school official is not in a direct supervisory role, then the charge is a misdemeanor.

The section of the law that Wentzky will be prosecuted under makes it a felony to have a sexual relationship with any student who is 16 or 17. The maximum penalty is five years in prison.

Columbia police charged Wentzky for having sex with a 17-year-old student in his family's home in the Sherwood Forest neighborhood, according to an arrest warrant. That relationship began in May 2011, the warrant said. Police have said the relationship lasted for several months.

Forest Acres police arrested Wentzky for having sex with another 17-year-old student in December at her home, according to an arrest warrant.

Her arrest created a hubbub in the Dreher community and attracted national attention.

Wentzky was suspended by Richland 1 officials on Jan. 2. When students returned to school on Jan. 3, word of her alleged sex with students spread like wildfire. Students passed along the allegations through Twitter and Facebook and also gossiped about who the victims might be. That chatter was taking place before she was arrested on Jan. 4 and again on Jan. 7.

Jay Leno made a joke Tuesday about Wentzky during his opening monologue when he told viewers about her alleged sexual encounters at a student's home.

“The whole concept of home school has changed since my day,” Leno said.

Before the arrests, Wentzky was an accomplished educator.

She graduated magna cum laude with secondary education in English degree from Clemson University and held a master's degree in speech language pathology from USC.

Wentzky has 10 years teaching experience, with seven of those years at Dreher. This year, she was teaching five honors English classes and leading the school's Teacher Cadet program, a course for students who are interested in becoming teachers. In November, she earned her national board certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a prestigious accomplishment for educators.

Now, her entire teaching career is in jeopardy.

In its order suspending Wentzky's teaching certificate, the S.C. Board of Education determined that it “has reason to believe that, due to the serious nature of these allegations of misconduct, Ms. Wentzky may pose a threat to the health, safety and welfare of students under her instruction and that emergency action is required.”

As a result of the state education board's actions, Wentzky's name also has been entered into a national database for suspended teachers, said Jay W. Ragleyv, education department spokesman.

“There will be a red flag on her file that her certification was suspended for an inappropriate relationship with a student,” Ragley said.

Wentzky's certificate will remain suspended until her criminal charges are resolved. If she is found guilty of the sexual battery charges, her certificate will be revoked, Ragley said. If she is found not guilty, she could be reinstated.

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