The Benton County attorney says he can't prosecute a former teacher who sent suggestive e-mails to students. But the attorney says more cooperation from the school district might have helped him make a criminal case.
TV9 and The Gazette reported last week that former teacher Walt Drahozal surrendered his license after accusations of inappropriate e-mails surfaced. And it literally took years for any information to become public.
The e-mails started at the end of the 2005 school year, when a group of teenagers sent a note to their former Benton Community teacher, Walter Drahozal.
He seemed happy to hear from them. To hear from one student in particular: “Well HEY to you all,” he wrote, giving special attention to one 13-year-old girl: “Dangit, but you’re hott!”
As the summer unfolded, he became bolder in his notes to that “hott” student. He asked detailed questions about her sexual experience, asked for photos, asked to visit her, double-checked to make sure she didn’t share her instant-messaging account with her mother.
His notes read suspiciously like the classic grooming behavior of a child predator, but when school officials learned of it, they kept it under wraps.
They didn’t report the e-mails to law enforcement but had school attorney Brian Gruhn investigate instead. They collected statements from several other students and former students who said Drahozal had sent them inappropriate messages and gave them hugs that made them uncomfortable, according to documents later provided to the Benton County attorney.
In early January 2006, Drahozal tendered his resignation. In an e-mail a few days later, he told his former school colleagues he’d prefer that Benton students were told he left to take a job closer to home. He reminded them he still had his teaching certificate and said he hoped to see them again soon.
“In the meantime, continue your work, and know that I will miss you,” he wrote. “Also — let me know if you have any leads on a JOB! :-) j/k!”
Drahozal surrendered his teaching license only this past January — after what former school board members describe as a struggle to get Benton Community Superintendent Gary Zittergruen to sign the complaint to the Board of Educational Examiners.
He didn’t have to. Iowa law requires schools to report only a limited number of criminal offenses to the Board of Educational Examiners, and Drahozal wasn’t charged with any crime. More on that in a minute.
“It’s not illegal maybe, but it’s still wrong,” Terry Harrington, a school board member at the time, told me this week.
Zittergruen declined to comment Friday, except to say that the district followed the advice of legal counsel and cooperated fully with the Board of Educational Examiners.
Harrington said it was months after Drahozal’s resignation when he learned the contents of the e-mails — not from school administrators, but from Benton County Attorney David Thompson. Harrington said they had met to talk about something else entirely when Thompson asked what the board was doing about Drahozal. He showed them some of his messages.
“I was shocked,” he told me. “It made me sick. I couldn’t believe it.”
Thompson said he hadn’t learned of the incident from school officials, either, but from a Benton County sheriff’s detective who’d gotten a call from a concerned parent. To this day, Thompson said, school officials haven’t told police or prosecutors how they learned about the e-mail exchange or when.
“I think what they would say is they looked at this and what they found did not rise to the level of a criminal offense,” he said. He would have preferred to have law enforcement make that call. “We would have liked the opportunity to investigate this properly.”
Even when a detective requested documents to help in their investigation, he said, school officials initially refused, citing “confidentiality.” School district attorney Gruhn apparently told the students and families he interviewed that the information they gave him wouldn’t be shared.
Thompson’s office didn’t receive those statements for years — only after the school board hired new attorney Douglas Oelschlaeger.
Former school board members told me that when they learned of the situation, they asked Oelschlaeger to start work on a complaint to the Board of Educational Examiners. Harrington said Zittergruen wouldn’t sign the document, though. The board even considered sending it without Zittergruen’s signature, Harrington said.
Zittergruen changed his mind in August, a few days after another former Benton Community schoolteacher, Donald Clark, was arrested for sexually abusing an elementary school child in the Iowa City school district.
Clark left Benton Community in 2001 to start work as a guidance counselor for Iowa City schools. He’s now serving up to 25 years in prison for sexually abusing a fifth grader there. No one filed complaints against Clark during his five-year stint at Benton Community, Zittergruen told a Gazette reporter at the time of Clark’s arrest.
As soon as the District’s administration was made aware of the possibility that one of its employees may be engaging in inappropriate conduct, as is the District’s practice and policy, the administration immediately sought legal advice regarding how to address its concerns and began an investigation into the employee’s conduct. Throughout the course of handling this matter, the District’s administration continued to follow the District’s practices and policies and followed the legal advice provided by counsel.
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