By Victor Skinner
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Pennsylvania mother Hope Egli sipped from a glass of water, cleared her throat, and took a moment to gather her emotions.
Her hand trembled as she adjusted the microphone and began to detail how her daughter’s public school teacher targeted the teen with unwanted sexual advances.
“He took it upon himself to send sexually explicit text messages to my daughter. These messages, they asked her to join him in his empty study hall room, asked her to basically leave her clothes at the door,” Egli told state lawmakers considering legislation to address sexual abuse of students by educators.
Egli went directly to police, who investigated and eventually found about 12 other young girls who were also harassed and touched inappropriately by the teacher, a popular basketball coach at the school.
Then she learned the rest of his story:
“But as those detectives dug a little deeper into his past it kind of came to the surface that this teacher had come from a … school district not far from our school district (and) during his tenure at that school district he was not only a teacher, but a girls basketball coach.
“I understand that no charges were brought forward against him but there were some accusations that were made by his basketball team (against) him. My understanding is that he resigned, which is basically how my school district obtained him.
“By another school district sweeping those situations under the carpet, this teacher ended up in my children’s school district and had the opportunity to continue with his inappropriate ways.”
An Obvious Problem
Anyone who follows the news can testify about the steady barrage of student-teacher sex scandals making headlines across the country in recent years.
It wasn’t always like this.
In 1997, the case of Mary Kay Letourneau, a middle school teacher who was convicted of having sex with a 13-year-old student, was the talk of the nation. Movies were made about the case. Nobody could believe a person of that age, in a position of responsibility and authority with children, would stoop so low.
Today it’s not uncommon for three or four similar stories to bubble to the surface in the same week.
That’s exactly what happened in Houston earlier this month, when a news story announced that, “Multiple cases of teacher pedophilia reported last week – What is going on in our community’s schools?”
But nobody seems certain about what it all means. Are more teachers abusing students than ever before? If so, why?
Experts agree there are a number of factors that perpetuate the problem, and may be contributing to its growth.
They include a lack of screening of teacher applicants, ignorance about the signs of sexual abuse, a traditional culture of silence in schools, administrators and union officials who allow offenders to quietly resign and move to other schools, and the rise of modern communication devices that allow teachers much more personal access to students.
The victims themselves often contribute to the problem through their own silence. Research shows that students often fail to report incidents of abuse because they fear nobody will believe them or feel intimidated by their teachers.
“You know, (teachers are) Gods,” Randy Burton, founder of the advocacy group Justice for Children, recently told a Texas television station. “They’re the people who control your grades, your destiny, your future. They can make you look silly in front of your classmates or make you look great.”
Unfortunately there have been many cases where students speak up and school employees recognize a problem, but choose to turn a blind eye instead of turning in a colleague or subordinate.
In Runnemede, New Jersey earlier this year, three teachers at Triton Regional High School were charged with having sex with students while two administrators were charged with knowingly covering it up.
The principal reportedly told police she “tried to protect the teachers from the consequences of their actions,” according to the Gloucester Township Patch.
A Lack of Reliable Statistics
It’s difficult to gauge the frequency of teachers sexually abusing students because there’s no central agency in the federal government or elsewhere that tracks the number of cases or offenders.
There are no federal reporting requirements for schools, and many complaints don’t result in criminal charges.
But reports of these troubling situations are on the rise in many areas.
In Oregon, a television station investigation of sanctions issued against teachers for sexual misconduct “shows roughly nine or ten teachers disciplined annually until 2004. From 2004 forward, there were between 12 and 15 teachers sanctioned every year,” KATU reported last spring.
Between November 2011 and May 2012 Oregon’s Teachers Standards and Practices Commission received 22 reports of educator sexual misconduct, according to Vicki Chamberlain, the commission’s executive director.
“There’s no question it’s bigger in terms of the number of our reports,” Chamberlain told KATU.
Earlier this month, New York City officials told the Riverdale Press that they received 679 complaints of sexual misconduct by school employees during the last year.
“The Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation launched 287 investigations into sexual misconduct allegations and substantiated 66 cases, or 20 percent of them,” the Riverdale Press reports.
The Texas Education Agency investigated 156 allegations of inappropriate relationships between teachers and students in 2011-12, which was about 70 more than in 2007-08.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education received 563 complaints of misconduct last year, which was more than double the average of 250 in recent years. The number of those cases involving sexual allegations was not identified.
Kansas City school officials last year reported a 100 percent increase in the number of complaints against teachers for various types of child abuse.
But not all states are showing an increase in complaints against teachers.
The number of behavioral complaints against teachers in Florida totaled 1,341 in 2012, 1,340 in 2011 and 1,355 in 2010, and sexual misconduct cases are not broken out.
“I think we are seeing more cases,” Terri Miller, executive director of the organization Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct, and Exploitation (S.E.S.A.M.E.), told EAGnews. “Teachers who sexually offend, or are targeting students have 24/7 access to them now (through social media) where they didn’t before.
“But … we don’t have the data to show if it’s on the rise or the decline.”
Studies Tell the Story
The most accurate estimate of teacher sexual misconduct comes from a survey conducted by the American Association of University Women in 2000 that showed about 4.5 million students in grades K-12 at the time suffered some form of sexual abuse by an educator. About 3 million had experienced actual sexual touching or assault, according to the survey.
Charol Shakeshaft of Virginia Commonwealth University expanded on the AAUW survey in 2004 for a U.S. Department of Education report.
“I don’t necessarily think there is more (abuse today), but again, we don’t have any data on this. None. I think it may be more reported,” Shakeshaft said.
“I think it’s a big problem that we don’t keep track of. We know how many reindeer are in Alaska, but we don’t know how many kids are being abused in schools.”
The AAUW survey asked students about physical as well as non-physical forms of sexual abuse – such as teachers masturbating or watching pornography with students – and that “when you added the non-physical sexual behaviors … about 10 percent of students had experienced educator sexual misconduct, Shakeshaft said.
“Most of the students didn’t report the incidents because they thought nothing would be done. Only 11 percent of that 10 percent reported it,” Shakeshaft said. “A lot of it was … in the classroom before or after school or in a car in the parking lot …”
The AAUW data shows “about 7 percent of students report that sometime between kindergarten and 11th grade they had been the target of a physical sexual behavior by an adult working in the schools,” Shakeshaft said.
An Associated Press investigation in 2007 “found more than 2,500 cases over five years in which educators were punished for actions from bizarre to sadistic.”
“There are 3 million public school teachers nationwide, most devoted to their work. Yet the number of abusive educators – nearly three for every school day – speaks to a much larger problem in a system that is stacked against victims,” according to the AP report.
The news service’s findings, however, were limited to cases that officials learned about and reported, which, as the AP notes, represents only a fraction of the actual abuse taking place.
“Unless there’s a videotape of a teacher involved with a child, everyone wants to believe the authority figure,” Wayne Promisel, a retired Virginia detective who has investigated many sex abuse cases, told the Associated Press.
All states have laws requiring school employees to report allegations of sexual abuse to authorities, but there’s no telling how frequently those laws are ignored, resulting in an underestimation of the problem.
In Bradenton, Florida earlier this year, Manatee High School officials received a letter from a student alleging that an assistant football coach groped her and asked her for nude photos of herself, according to the Bradenton Times. Under state law, the officials were obligated to report the accusations to law enforcement within 24 hours. The coach has denied the allegations.
But school officials “decided to keep the allegations quiet while they conducted an internal investigation … meaning that more personnel would have had to become aware of the allegations and likewise fail to inform the state,” the newspaper said.
Mary Jo McGrath, an attorney in California who has spent 30 years investigating misconduct in schools, said she believes every school district employs a child sex predator.
“From my own experience – this could get me in trouble – I think every single school district in the nation has at least one perpetrator. At least one,” McGrath tod the AP. “It told the doesn’t matter if it’s urban or rural or suburban.”
Coming tomorrow: Abusive teachers using Facebook and other electronic forms of communication to sexually pursue students.