BANGKOK, THAILAND — 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. Plus, schools say high turnover means they often must fill positions quickly, or else cancel key programs.
Some expatriate teachers have weighed in on website forums. Many are skeptical of government calls for closer scrutiny, and say inflexible labor laws lead to teachers working illegally, avoiding any formal screening process.
A government overreaction prompted by concerns over pedophiles may backfire, says Frank Moore, an American teacher who moderates a forum at www.ajarn.com (ajarn is a Thai word for teacher). "Many of us teaching here for the long haul are scared there will be a crackdown and expulsion of good teachers because we don't have a Bachelor of Education degree, or our employers won't get us a work permit," he says.
Teachers are critical, though, of administrators that hire native speakers for English-language programs without proper evaluation. In June, Karr began teaching first grade at Bangkok Christian College, an all-boys school founded in 1852 by American missionaries. He gave another prestigious school, St Joseph's Convent, as a reference, even though that school had fired him after only a few weeks.
But Bangkok Christian College still hired Karr, because of a teacher shortage. He was later dropped after parents reportedly complained that he was too strict.
Outside St. Joseph's, an all-girls Catholic school, parents expressed alarm over its hiring policy. "I'm worried about this person. I think the school should know the history and background of its teachers," says Monthol Junchaya, whose daughter is in the first grade.
Antipedophile campaigners say lax monitoring of foreigners working at private schools is a red flag for potential child molesters who exploit the high level of respect for teachers in Asian societies. Through informal networks, campaigners encourage teachers to report suspicions so names can be quietly checked.
"We suspect there may be pedophiles teaching in our schools, but we can't prove it. They may not be serious abusers, but they'll seek opportunities to molest children, and in ways that adults don't always notice," says Wanchai.
Australia restricts travel for convicted pedophiles. The US and some European countries allow the prosecution of nationals that commit child-sex offenses overseas. This puts the onus back on the countries of origin, which have more resources to fight such crimes, says Carmen Madrinan, executive director of ECPAT International, a Bangkok advocacy group.