School administrators had few answers Wednesday for why Jason David Barker — a convicted felon and special-education teacher now charged with molesting his students — was able to land job after job at area charter and private schools.
Barker was director of the special-education program at La Crescent Montessori Academy until earlier this month, when several of his students confronted him at school in a plea to stop the abuse, prosecutors said.
Before that, Barker worked at Three Rivers Waldorf School in La Crosse and Bluffview Montessori School and Riverway Community School in Winona, Minn.
He has not been accused of wrongdoing at those schools. But he was hired despite a rap sheet that included felony damage to property, misdemeanor burglary, numerous traffic violations and a drug charge.
It appeared Wednesday that Barker has not been employed in an area public school district.
“I’m disappointed,” said Three Rivers Administrator Justin McKnight. “It’s kind of hard to imagine something like this slipping through the cracks.”
Three Rivers ran a background check on Barker through the Wisconsin Department of Justice before hiring him to supervise kindergarten through eighth-grade students in an after-school care program between October 2009 and January 2010.
Problem was, all Barker’s crimes occurred in Minnesota and the check came back clean.
Three Rivers was experiencing turnover at the time and didn’t have administrators “making sure everything was being watched,” said McKnight, who joined the school in July.
“Now, all the hiring goes through me,” he said. “We diligently check all of those things.”
It’s unclear if any of the other schools checked Barker out before he was hired.
La Crescent Montessori school administrator Tammy Stremcha declined to comment Wednesday about Barker and referred all questions to the school’s attorney, Dawn Harris.
Harris declined to comment on the school’s procedure for hiring new employees, and would not say if the school conducts background checks.
“We’re not going to get into the hiring process,” Harris said.
Barker worked at Bluffview Montessori School in Winona in December 2010 as a substitute teacher for 12 hours, school administrator Stephanie Wehman said. He was then hired in 2011 as a long-term substitute teacher for first- through third-grade students, and worked from Jan. 6 to June 9.
Wehman, who started at Bluffview in August 2011, said she didn’t know what the school’s previous hiring process was. But she said that since her arrival, all applicants are interviewed by a committee and must pass a criminal background check.
She had no record of complaints against Barker during his time at Bluffview.
“Right now the allegations don’t really involve Bluffview School. … We’re not going to discuss him in particular other than to get the information out there that we have to through data practices,” Wehman said.
Barker taught at Riverway Community School about four years ago, said Katey Wadewitz, the school’s leader of operations. She was unable Wednesday to provide the exact dates, or what Barker’s role was at the school.
Wadewitz was also unable to describe how Riverway hires its employees. She said she is looking into it.
Licensed to teach
Barker is a licensed teacher in Minnesota, and holds teaching licenses valid through 2015 in elementary education, K-12 emotional behavior disorders, K-12 learning disabilities and grades 5-8 social studies, according to the Minnesota Department of Education.
Minnesota law says that those applying for an initial teaching license must undergo a background check but can be granted a license even with prior criminal convictions, so long as the person has not been found guilty of “child abuse, using minors in a sexual performance or possessing pornographic works involving a minor,” or a similar conviction under other states’ laws.
Similar rules apply in Wisconsin. Felons can get a license as long as previous convictions aren’t connected to working with children, said Patrick Gasper, a spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
It is up to schools whether to conduct further individual background checks, and the ultimate hiring decision remains with the school, said Keith Hovis, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Education.
“It’s kind of their prerogative to decide,” he said.
At the public school district in La Crosse, criminal background checks are only part of an extensive hiring process, said Steve Salerno, associate superintendent of human resources.
Job candidates must also agree to informal inquiries, Salerno said, which allows districts to contact a candidates’ past associates.
“You have to do your homework,” Salerno said. “Your due diligence.”
A criminal history
Barker’s latest charges accuse him of ongoing inappropriate relationships with at least three young girls at La Crescent Montessori Academy, offering what one described as “weird touches,” hugging, and requests they sit on his lap only after he closed the door.
Sometimes when a girl told him to stop, he listened, the complaint said.
Other times he didn’t.
One student told a school staff member that Barker put “his hands down the back of her pants, lifted her shirt, rubbed her belly and touched her breasts,” according to the criminal complaint.
He was accused seven years ago of giving alcohol to teenage girls.
According to court records, Barker was convicted in Minnesota’s Ramsey County of felony criminal damage to property in 1995, and of third-degree burglary in 1994. No further details on those crimes were available Wednesday.
He was charged in Anoka County in September 2006 with disorderly conduct and furnishing alcohol to minors, according to court records. He pleaded guilty later that year to the count of disorderly conduct, and the furnishing alcohol charge was dismissed, records show.
According to that incident’s criminal complaint, Barker was a manager at Lilli Putt in Coon Rapids, Minn., a mini-golf, go-cart and bumper-boat complex. One afternoon he bought a bottle of citrus-flavored vodka while on break and offered it to a 17-year-old and a 16-year-old girl, both his employees, after the business closed for the day, according to the complaint.
Barker told officers that he and the 17-year-old drank about half of the bottle and that the 16-year-old had one sip, according to the complaint. Barker also told officers he knew the girls were in high school.
Barker was already working at the La Crescent Montessori Academy in May, when prosecutors say he brandished a knife, reached into a car and threatened to stab a couple he accused of cutting him off during a bicycle ride on the east end of Winona.
Barker pleaded not guilty. The school promoted him to special-education director four months later.
Barker has a pre-trial hearing today in the assault case. His next appearance in Houston County District Court is scheduled for Feb. 6.