Phillip Smith III should never have had a chance to become a creepy teacher.
The former social studies instructor at Huffman High School in Birmingham, Alabama, was arrested in 2014 over charges of sexual contact with a student. Awful though that may be, he probably wasn't the worst teacher-harasser America's ever seen. But the case is drawing intense national attention because Smith had been arrested for domestic abuse, as well as jailed for illegal gun trafficking, years before making the jump into sex crime.
That those offenses failed to trip red flags points towards systemic issues that may be needlessly exposing some Alabama children to volatile characters. At the very least, the crimes are likely to play a key role in a lawsuit filed in December by one of Smith's former students, who claims the teacher solicited sexual favors from her and others in exchange for good grades—and that local officials failed to protect them.
The former teacher's sex crime saga kicked off back in December 2013. That's when, during a history exam, Smith allegedly passed a note to a freshman girl, 14 or 15 at the time, whose desk he moved closer to his own for no obvious reason. The note said the struggling student should come by his room later in the day and pull down her pants so that he could kiss her ass—in exchange for an "A" or "B." Then the teacher apparently asked the girl, "You scared?" suggestively on her way out of the room, at which point the student reported the incident to her mother, who in turn brought it to the school.
The girl stayed out of school for a while after that, but Smith was allowed to keep teaching. When she came back, the girl was changed classes—albeit in a room right next door to her alleged harasser.
Smith only faced real repercussions when a second student came forward in 2014. For that incident, he was officially charged with direct sexual contact with a student under the age of 19, as well as first- and second-degree sodomy, for which he faced up to 20 years in prison. Somehow, though, after being fired and surrendering his teaching license, Smith got off by pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of endangering the health, safety, or welfare of a child, and avoided registration as a sex offender.
Smith even managed a suspended 12-month jail sentence with two years of unsupervised probation—avoiding prison entirely, according to AL.com.
That leniency, coupled with the two-week wait to get Smith out of a classroom, seems pretty bizarre given the information investigators dug up about Smith's history. Birmingham City Schools hired him in 2000 after a criminal background check, but in 2002, he was arrested after yelling at his child's mother, choking her, pushing her down hard enough to cut her knee, and threatening to kill her; he avoided jail by completing an intervention program. Then, in 2004, the feds busted Smith for buying at least 108 guns over the previous four years and selling them illegally for $200 each to an underground dealer, who put them out onto the black market. Smith took leave from his job to serve a nine-month sentence for that crime, to which he pleaded guilty. (Smith apparently failed to notify his employers where he was taking sabbatical.)
When the sentence was done, Smith just returned to work, transferring from his former Birmington-area school to Huffman. Which is what experts seem to agree is the craziest part of the story.
"In most states, if you are doing anything with guns, you're history for being employed in a school," says Nan Stein, a researcher at the Wellesley Centers for Women who's studied sexual assault in K-12 settings.
For their part, Birmingham City Schools officials have said they never knew of these convictions—even though the local Board of Education was reportedly made aware of some of the details of each case in 2003 and 2008, respectively. (VICE reached out to the Birmingham Board of Education and an attorney representing Smith for comment but had yet to hear back as of publication. A spokesperson for the Alabama State Department of Education, meanwhile, previously told a local NBC affiliate that "not all convictions make a person unsuitable to work in an educational environment.")
So while it might be tempting to call negligence here, because Smith was not a dangerous criminal as defined by the state, he was probably technically qualified to teach. Even scarier, according to Stein: The school's two-week wait to take the teacher out of the classroom after the first allegation actually represents a relatively swift response time among cases she's seen.
Stein can't explain why Smith got off with a light sentence in the 2014 case. But she suspects he might have been booted out of the school system before the sexual abuse entirely if Alabama more effectively monitored teachers' criminal history.
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