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Last Updated: Saturday, 19 August 2006, 14:14 GMT 15:14 UK
JonBenet exposes Thai teaching flaws
By Kate McGeown
BBC News, Bangkok

John Mark Karr
John Mark Karr was given teaching jobs around the world

The arrest of John Mark Karr over the killing of American child beauty queen JonBenet Ramsey has caused the Thai authorities to question the vetting procedures used to recruit foreign teaching staff.

Karr - a wanted man in the US, who was once held on suspicion of possessing child pornography - successfully applied for a job in a Bangkok school just days before his arrest.

He had previously worked in two other Thai schools.

In fact he seems to have spent the past 10 years as a globe-trotting teacher who, according to his resume, taught in South Korea, Europe and Latin America.

"This case shows that we may need to tighten the rules on screening teachers," said Jakrapob Penkair, a Thai government spokesman overseeing educational affairs.

Mr Jakrapob said that while there was currently no national recruitment system, the government was due to meet early next week to discuss whether more regulations were needed.

Inappropriate behaviour

Every year, thousands of foreigners apply for work in Thai schools, particularly in international and language schools.

It's obvious to me that more than 80% of schools here don't do any background checks
Frank Moore, teacher

"The vast majority are here trying to help the kids, but some are here for sex, booze and drugs," said Frank Moore, a teacher and moderator of an expatriate teaching website.

Some take it even further. In May, an American teacher was deported from Thailand after serving a one-year jail sentence for abusing teenage boys - and he is far from being an isolated case.

According to Mr Jakrapob, there are two types of teachers in Thailand - those who arrive specifically to teach, on official work permits, and others who are short-term visitors on tourist visas.

It is the latter category he is most concerned about, because of the lack of regulations.

Some schools, such as the long-established International School Bangkok, only hire fully qualified long-term teachers, and run extensive background checks.

Students wait for their transportation outside the Bangkok Christian College
Bangkok Christian College employed Karr for a short time

"The safety of our children is of prime importance," said deputy head teacher Tom Baker.

But the shortage of teachers is such that many smaller and newer establishments depend on the temporary services of backpackers and other tourists to stay in business - and often make little or no attempt to research these people's pasts.

"It's obvious to me that more than 80% of schools here don't do any background checks," said Frank Moore.

And even when checks are carried out, it is debatable whether every potential paedophile would be weeded out anyway, given the information available.

"There are a lot of foreign databases with information about people with criminal backgrounds which are not available overseas," said Mr Baker.

Karr's case is a prime example. Bangkok Christian College, which employed him for two weeks in June, said it had run a background search on him and found nothing.

The results of this unregulated system are obvious. While most teachers are working in Thailand for legitimate reasons, those that are not often find they can get away with their behaviour.

One teacher, who did not want to be named, said he knew of staff who "had problems from mental illness, to alcohol and substance abuse, to inappropriate interest in the students."

"Most of these people are eventually fired but move on to other positions," he said.

Holistic approach

Karr's case is now encouraging the Thai government to look into standardising vetting procedures on a national level, rather than leaving the responsibility to individual schools.

Stephanie Delaney, a Bangkok-based spokeswoman for Ecpat, an international organisation working to combat the sexual exploitation of children, said she would welcome a national standard, but cautioned that this alone would not solve the problem.

Patong beach, Phuket, Thailand
Thailand offers foreigners an easy-going lifestyle
"You also need a holistic approach," she said, adding that staff should be trained to spot warning signs in colleagues' behaviour, and children should also be encouraged to speak out if they feel uncomfortable.

According to Ms Delaney, Thailand's standards are actually no worse than those in many other countries.

But there is little doubt that Thailand, and South East Asia as a whole, has an unenviable reputation for attracting paedophiles - a problem brought into the spotlight in recent months by the conviction of British pop star Gary Glitter in Vietnam.

Part of the problem is the sheer numbers of Western men coming to the region, attracted by the easy-going lifestyle and year-round sun.

"We have a Mai Pen Rai (Thai for 'No worries') culture here. People are happy and relaxed and it's easy to fit in. Unfortunately, bad people can take advantage of that," said Mr Jakrapob.

"Our strength could turn into a weakness if we don't use it right. We want to welcome people here, but we also have to prevent bad people from slipping through the net."

John Mark Karr speaks to reporters

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