MILWAUKEE, WI (USA TODAY) -- Wisconsin educators convicted of inappropriate relationships or abuse of students often plead down from more serious charges and rarely serve more than a year in prison, a USA TODAY NETWORK investigation has found.
Three recent cases near Fond du Lac, Green Bay and Milwaukee illustrate how plea deals lead to lesser penalties. Several more cases of teacher misconduct involving sexual allegations over the last decade show a similar trend, based on a database of all Wisconsin teachers whose licenses were revoked.
The findings are part of USA TODAY NETWORK's ongoing nationwide investigation of how states handle teacher misconduct.
Legal officials and the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction say the convictions did what they were designed to do — hold teachers accountable and keep dangerous educators out of Wisconsin classrooms.
"The bottom line is sometimes (a plea) is necessary. Every single case can't go to trial. If every single case went to trial our system would collapse. We have too many," said Alex Duros, an assistant district attorney in Outagamie County.
Crossing the line
Michael Burman, a former teacher at Horace Mann High School in North Fond du Lac, was charged in Fond du Lac County in February 2007 with 10 counts of sexual assault by school staff and 10 counts of child enticement. He had a relationship with a 17-year-old student that included more than 70 sexual encounters, many of which happened at school, the criminal complaint said. Burman faced more than 300 years in prison for the 20 felonies.
Instead, he took a plea deal, and was convicted on two counts of causing mental harm to a child. Eight counts of sexual assault of a student by school staff and 10 counts of child enticement were dismissed and read into the record at his sentencing.
Burman received six months in jail, was ordered to pay restitution and was placed on probation for five years.
The girl involved in the case testified in court and shed tears when she heard the terms of Burman's sentence, according to archives from The Reporter in Fond du Lac.
Deals usually mean less jail time
Burman isn't the only former educator to make waves and fade quietly into the background afterward.
• A Milwaukee County judge dismissed charges against Emily L. Patterson, a former Mukwonago High School teacher and Brown Deer High School girls' soccer coach, in 2010. Patterson was charged with sex assault of a student by school staff after she had a relationship with a 16-year-old girl on the soccer team. She was no longer a coach when the case began. The judge dismissed the charge because she wasn't a school employee or volunteer as defined by state statute, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
• Andrea L. Ebert, a former teacher at Rice Lake Middle School, was sentenced to six months in jail, three years' probation and 500 hours of community service in a 2012 Barron County Case. Ebert was convicted of sex assault of a student by school staff — a felony — and a misdemeanor count of sex with a child age 16 or older.
• Christopher Wieber, a former Bay Port High School teacher, was charged with sexual assault of a student by school staff and child enticement in Brown County in 2013. He accepted a plea deal, and was convicted of causing mental harm to a child. He was sentenced to a year in jail with work release privileges and six years of probation.
• Daniel S. Markofski, a longtime Wisconsin educator, was a principal at an Illinois school at the time of his 2008 arrest in Milwaukee County. He was sentenced to one year in prison and 18 months of extended supervision on two counts of exposing a child to harmful material and a misdemeanor count of sex with a child age 16 or under. Parents at the Illinois school where Markofski was a principal "were upset" with his sentence, considering the charges he faced carried more jail time, the Northwest Herald of Crystal Lake, Ill. reported. The Milwaukee County judge who sentenced him, John Franke, resigned in late 2008 for reasons unrelated to the Markofski case, the Northwest Herald story said.
• Nathan E. Cox, a former Prairie Farm Middle School teacher, was sentenced to one year in prison and four years of extended supervision after he was convicted of child enticement-sexual contact with a student in Barron County in 2007.
Judges doled-out harsher sentences for particularly heinous cases, records show.
• Ryan Zellner, a former Kiel High School teacher, was sentenced to 15 years in prison, 18 years of extended supervision and three years of probation in Manitowoc County in 2010. He assaulted 11 girls in three counties over an eight-year period. Zellner agreed to a plea deal, which took 17 charges off the table, including one count of second-degree sexual assault of a child. Zellner pled no contest to 11 charges — all of them felonies — including child enticement-sexual contact and sex assault of a student by school staff.
Weighing the options
Case law emphasizes rehabilitation over incarceration, which explains why a defendant may not serve considerable jail time, but face a lengthy probation term with many conditions, said Outagamie County Circuit Judge Nancy Krueger.
If the crime involves a child victim, Krueger said judges typically prohibit the defendant from volunteering or working with children as a condition of probation. Other requirements could include completing sex offender treatment, registering as a sex offender and limiting, or eliminating, access to computers and the Internet.
"A judge may feel in a particular case — if it's unlikely the offense is going to occur again — that if (the offender) is being supervised and also serves some time in jail as punishment that the combination will work to protect the public," she said.
State law automatically requires people who have been convicted of sexual offenses involving children to register as sex offenders. Those crimes include sexual assault of a child, child enticement-sexual contact, sexual assault of a student by school staff and exposing a child to harmful material. A judge also could order sex offender registration if the crime doesn't require it.
Judges consider many factors when ruling on sexual assault cases, including a defendant's criminal record and character — along with the impact the crime had on the victim.
With sex assault cases involving students and teachers, the offenders usually haven't committed similar crimes in the past, Krueger said.
"It depends on the particular case, and they're not easy cases for a judge to handle at sentencing," Krueger said. "A lot of times the victim will not show up in court, so you only hear the victim's story from either a letter they write to you or from their conversations with the probation agent who wrote the pre-sentence report, so that can make it a little more difficult, too."
The facts of each case affect whether prosecutors offer the defendant a plea agreement, said Duros, the assistant district attorney. Sometimes, sexual assault cases look clear-cut when police refer charges, but information gets murky when prosecutors do more digging.
Prosecutors may try to lock in a conviction by amending charges and having others dismissed and read in to the record when an offender is sentenced.
"We have a humongous burden at a jury trial, it's beyond a reasonable doubt. It's the biggest burden in our court system, and every time we take a case to trial it's a risk because oftentimes — especially in these sexual assault cases — we don't have a lot of corroborating evidence," he said. "Usually it's a 'he-said, she-said' case and by amending it down and creating this plea bargain we assure a conviction."
Crimes against children
Wisconsin's Chapter 948 Statutes deal exclusively with crimes against children, such as abuse, neglect, sexual assault and enticement.
They're all felonies, and educators convicted of such crimes lose their teaching licenses, said Tom McCarthy, a DPI spokesman.
Even though Burman was not convicted of sexual assault of a student by school staff or child enticement, he was guilty of two Chapter 948 crimes. Causing mental harm to a child is a felony that carries a maximum prison sentence of 12½ years and fines up to $25,000.
He — and every other teacher mentioned above — lost their teaching licenses as a result of their criminal cases, according to the DPI's online licensor portal.
The reality of the justice system is every case can't go to trial, but there are mechanisms in the law that allow prosecutors to keep offenders from getting off the hook, Duros said.
"We call it a legal fiction — maybe they didn't cause mental harm to a child, but it's a way for us to use the legal system to hold people accountable, to do something that's in the best interest of the victim, to do something that the suspect thinks is in the best interest for him and that's in the best interest of society to make sure this person is held accountable," he said.