By Victor Skinner
LOS ANGELES – For years, parents at George de la Torre Elementary School in Wilmington, California complained to school administrators about teacher Robert Pimentel’s questionable behavior with their children.
And for years school officials ignored their concerns and shielded Pimentel, a police investigation concluded. It wasn’t until five parents of students in Pimentel’s fourth-grade class went directly to police with their accusations in March 2012 that the Los Angeles Unified School District took action.
“These were some really alert parents knowing their kids and noticing subtle changes in their personalities,” Los Angeles police Capt. Fabian Lizarraga told the Associated Press.
Several young girls told police Pimentel fondled them on top of and underneath their clothing. Their claims were substantiated by other students, and authorities eventually discovered that 20 of the teacher’s female students – plus a female teacher – had been victimized over the years.
Investigators also learned about similar molestation complaints lodged against Pimentel in 2008 and 2008, both of which were handled by a principal who swept them under the rug, the AP reported.
In January, Pimentel pleaded not guilty to eight felony counts of sexual abuse and seven counts of lewd acts on a child, according to KABC-TV in Los Angeles.
The parents who circumvented school officials and took their allegations directly to the police demonstrated how parents can take action to uncover and end sexual abuse of students. Exposing and dealing with pedophile teachers requires a multifaceted approach that includes better screening of potential school employees, as well as efforts to train school employees and parents about the signs of abuse, according to experts.
There are numerous practical, proactive steps parents can take to ensure their child isn’t victimized by a sexually charged teacher, and to force action from school officials if they suspect abuse.
There are also underutilized resources available for school officials to better screen prospective employees.
Indiana University Northwest professor Charles Hobson recently authored “Passing the Trash: A Parent’s Guide to Combat Sexual Abuse/Harassment of Their Children in School” - a comprehensive book detailing common-sense steps parents can take to reduce the risk of their child becoming a target for teacher sexual abuse.
Hobson, who teaches management at the university’s School of Business and Economics, also offers ideas on how parents can force systemic reforms that could help eliminate opportunities for teachers to abuse students.
Parents should insist in person – to both the school principal and teachers – that their children are never left alone with any school employee for any reason, according to Hobson. Parents should also demand that their children are never touched by a school employee without their knowledge, except for emergency medical treatment, said Hobson.
“If teachers know a parent is that interested and involved in these issues, the likelihood a pervert will target your child drops dramatically,” Hobson told EAGnews.
Parents can also pressure local school boards to make such rules district policy, which would not only limit opportunities for abusers to get children alone, but would also establish a more serious tone about inappropriate relationships that would greatly discourage child molesters.
“I would like to see schools adopt these more aggressive policies to protect students,” Hobson said. “These practices would send a message from the school system that they’re serious.”
Hobson said parents should educate themselves on the seductive strategies of child molesters and signs of abuse. They should also educate their children about appropriate and inappropriate contact, and the importance of speaking up if they’ve been touched, Hobson said.
Aside from his book, Hobson also created a guide for parents that explains in detail how they can keep their children safe from sexual abuse at school.
Screening and training
Experts agree that school officials could do a lot more to prevent the hiring of sexual predators, or increase the probability of detecting abusers already on staff.
A 2010 report by the United States Government Accountability Office, titled “Selected Cases of Public and Private Schools That Hired or Retained Individuals with Histories of Sexual Misconduct,” illustrates more than a dozen examples of how shoddy background checks by lazy school administrators led to disastrous consequences.
“We found no federal laws regulating the employment of sex offenders in public or private schools and widely divergent laws at the state level, especially with regard to requirements and methods for conducting criminal history checks on employees,” the report said.
Government investigators found instances of educators convicted of sex-related or violent crimes crossing state lines to regain employment, using alias names to avoid detection, and providing reference letters from previous employers after quietly leaving their schools following abuse allegations.
Federal resources exist to help schools identify sex offenders before they’re hired. But schools are not required to use the services and many don’t, according to the report.
“The Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act of 2006 requires the (U.S.) Department of Justice to conduct a criminal history check for employees who work around children at the request of a public or private school,” according to the GAO report.
Hobson believes psychological tests used by parole boards to gauge the likelihood of sex offenders repeating their crimes would work well, although he said teachers unions likely would oppose the more stringent screening.
While screening potential hires is critical, teacher sexual misconduct “has to be addressed from both ends” by training school staff to recognize the signs of abuse and the proper procedure for reporting it, according to Terri Miller, executive director of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation (S.E.S.A.M.E.).
Information on child sexual abuse, which includes references to available training on the topic, should be provided to parents when they register their child for school, Miller said.
Virginia Commonwealth University professor Charol Shakeshaft – a leading expert on educator sexual misconduct – agrees with Miller.
“A lot of reason this happens is because it can,” Shakeshaft said. “Nobody is stopping it. I don’t believe training will get rid of all of what happens, but I think it would get rid of a great deal of it.”
Shakeshaft said teachers unions are in the perfect position to promote increased training, but have shown little interest.
“I would like to see the unions take a lead position on this and try to figure out ways to do the training and other things that would help, but I have not seen that yet,” she said.
The general reluctance of unions to consider stricter hiring practices is a huge problem for traditional public schools, where union teachers generally work. But it provides an excellent opportunity for non-union public schools (like charter schools) and private schools to attract more students by imposing tougher screening for teachers.
Private or charter schools could market themselves as safer alternatives to traditional schools, and many parents would probably enroll their children, according to Hobson.
Such efforts would help charter or private schools recruit students, and would increase pressure on union officials to work with public schools to implement similar policies.
Lawmakers in several states and Congress have pursued legislation to make it easier to fire educators accused of sexual misconduct, but their efforts have been mostly unsuccessful due to political pressure from teacher unions.
But efforts to protect students are beginning to gain more bipartisan support, and recent high-profile cases like the Jerry Sandusky sex scandal at Penn State University may be creating enough public outrage to force the implementation of new polices.
In Pennsylvania, Democratic state Sen. Anthony Williams sponsored legislation last year to end “passing the trash” deals negotiated by union officials that allow accused child molesters to quietly resign with a letter of recommendation.
Williams said school officials sometimes withhold information about abusive employees from other districts out of fear of being sued, but his legislation would end the “passing the trash” practice by mandating disclosure.
Williams’ bill imposes significant financial penalties for school officials if they don’t comply with the law. It failed to become a law last year but has been reintroduced this year.
“What it does is allow school districts to share information about allegations of sexual misconduct … before a teacher is hired,” Williams told EAGnews.
While Williams is taking a proactive approach by working to prevent the hiring of abusive educators, lawmakers in New York and California are focused on streamlining the process for removing predators from school payrolls.
It currently can take more than a year, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, to fire teachers accused of sexual misconduct. That’s particularly true when accusations involve less than direct physical contact between a teacher and student.
Despite the time and expense involved, firing decisions are often left to arbitrators who tragically return too many questionable teachers to their classrooms. School officials in both states want to simplify and accelerate the termination process and remove arbitrators from the equation.
Union pressure killed bills last year in California and New York designed to accomplish that goal. Public support for lawmakers willing to stand up to union interests would help counter their powerful political influence.
Hobson believes holding school officials more accountable for reporting suspected sexual abuse, which is the law in all 50 states, would also encourage more people to come forward. Aggressive enforcement of those laws would discourage school and union officials from orchestrating deals that let accused teachers off the hook, he said.
“Anyone who participates in these ‘passing the trash’ deals deserves a jail sentence,” Hobson said. “It’s mindboggling to me these kinds of things are going on.”
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Front page image credit: AP