Karr Arrest Highlights Lax Teacher Vetting in Thailand

Article excerpt

Every year, thousands of footloose university graduates cross the Pacific to try their luck at teaching English in Asia. Some quit after a few semesters; others make it their career, and hop from school to school, and country to country.

But the arrest here last week of John Mark Karr for the murder of JonBenet Ramsey spotlights the dark side of the international school circuit, and has prompted calls for stricter controls on teacher hires.

Campaigners against child abuse in Asia warn that a troubled minority lurks among the ranks of foreign teachers. Pedophiles have also worked in orphanages and Thai child aid projects. Mr. Karr lost his California teaching license after being jailed in 2001 for possessing child pornography. He later left the US and taught in several countries, including Thailand, where he was hired earlier this year to teach elementary classes at two private schools in Bangkok. His arrest came two days after he had started at another school.

Karr is not accused of any offenses in Thailand. In May another American teacher was deported to face charges in the US after spending a year in a Thai jail for sexually abusing teenage boys at his school. Earlier this month, an Australian teacher was charged in Jakarta, Indonesia, with molesting street children.

"Private schools say they have high standards, but they're not checking the backgrounds of foreign teachers," says Wanchai Roujamawong, a former public prosecutor who heads the probation department at the Thai Ministry of Justice. Schools must "make sure all teachers have a license and clean records."

International schools have mushroomed across Thailand over the last five years, as well as English-language immersion programs in Thai public schools. While some international schools cater to expatriates and recruit teachers in their home country, others serve Thai parents who want their children to become bilingual. Some 7,000 foreign teachers work in Thailand.

The rising demand for native speakers means even inexperienced applicants find jobs. Thai authorities say some teachers are not properly screened, and want stricter enforcement of regulations.

"It's a question of standards. We shouldn't lower our standards for the sake of opening more schools," says Jakrapop Penkair, a member of a government committee on private-sector education. "We have enough laws in Thailand, but we disregard them."

Education officials say some international schools have complained that background checks take too long, such as verifying overseas university degrees. Uncovering criminal records is even more cumbersome, unless the applicant shows up on an international police watch-list at immigration. …