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Sexual abuse in schools is a national phenomenon

Lisa Olivia Fitch | 4/4/2012, 5 p.m.

The prevalance of sexual misconduct at schools is hard to determine because there is no national report or study that has examined educator abuse as its primary purpose. However, a 2004 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education by Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University and Interactive Inc, Huntington, N.Y., found that more than 4.5 million children in grades k-12, have been subjected to sexual miscounduct by an adult at some point.

For decades in order to keep them safe, children were taught to stay away from "strangers." But according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, this concept is difficult for youngsters to grasp and does not take into consideration that often a child abuser is someone the youngster knows and trusts.

In the two months since the arrest of Mark Berndt, the teacher charged in the Miramonte Elementary School sex scandal, there has been a growing list of other accusations of inappropriate behavior by Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) employees. Law enforcement officials believe the increased reports are a byproduct of the event--more children, parents and employees are now encouraged to come forward with information.

Others believe that people are becoming more watchful and alert to a problem that is more pervasive than first thought.

Since January, there have been at least 130 people investigated for allegations of inappropriate behavior with LAUSD students, according to the state's teacher credentialling agency. Two of these incidents involved coaches and one of them involves a female teacher.

According to an investigation by the Associated Press, out of the more than three million teachers in the U.S., 2,570 were found to have engaged in sexual misconduct between 2001 and 2005. That's less than .09 percent of the total teacher population.

Although one bad teacher is one too many, the bigger question is not if one should trust their child's educator, but if they can trust the school district to stop that one bad teacher from harming child after child, in school after school, month after month.

Parents at Miramonte were aghast to learn that Berndt had been carrying on his lewd acts for years (between 2005 and 2010) with 23 students. All were between 7 and 10 years old and two of the victims were boys.

"It's a nightmare for victims," LAUSD Superintendent John E. Deasy, Ph.D., said. "We moved to remove him immediately (at the start of the investigation)."

Berndt was suspended in February 2011. Apparently, the LAUSD School Board could not alert parents about the fact that Berndt was under a yearlong L.A. County Sheriff's Special Victims Bureau investigation, or that hundreds of sexually explicit photographs had been taken of their children. He was finally arrested two months ago, on Jan. 30.

If convicted, Berndt faces up to life in prison.

The California State Education Code states that complaints against employees can be preserved in personnel files. On March 13, the school board unanimously passed two resolutions (district personnel are currently working with state legislative officials to craft some appropriate bills) seeking changes to that current state law; adding provisions that would create a central database of all complaints involving abuse; an automatic review of personnel files whenever an employee is reassigned; and urging the process for dismissing employees to be streamlined.

Under current law, districts face a long process for terminating employees facing charges for inappropriate behavior; it can stretch from two to seven years, depending on appeals.

"This is about doing the right thing," said LAUSD Board Member Nury Martinez, who sponsored the resolution with Board Member Tamar Galatzan and Board President Monica Garcia.

"This is about protecting children," she added. "We need to fix this. It is our responsibility."

Miramonte Elementary is in the State Assembly District of Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) and he weighed in on the issue as well.

"This is certainly a horrible situation," John Vigna, press secretary to the Speaker said. "Obviously, this is an issue that our office is paying very close attention to."

Berndt was arrested only two months ago, but there may already be some movement of the wheels of change in state education code policies.

"Members of the Legislature are proposing legislation and contemplating introducing legislation and obviously any legislation formed would have statewide applications," Perez added.

"A lot will be determined by how the investigation unfolds," he continued. "It's very early in the process."

Any answer from Sacramento may take a while, but as an immediate reaction to the scandal, LAUSD Superintendent Deasy removed the entire Miramonte staff, janitors and cafeteria workers included, to other positions in the district as investigators look into the school's culture of silence.

"That's a pretty drastic result, but it sounds as if the systematic failure at the school was pretty drastic," Philadelphia Safe Schools Advocate Kelly Hodge said.

"They may have felt like there was a cancer running through the building, and the safety of the children is paramount," she added. "The silence is just as bad as the behavior--basically acquiescing the behavior."

Pennsylvania is the first state in the country, and maybe the only one, to put a Safe Schools Advocate effort in place. The post was established in 2002 as a result of the crime, bullying and violence that was taking place in the schools of its most populated city, Philadelphia.

Hodge provides victim services, counseling and advice about legal services to students and their families. Her state-funded office is located in the Philadelphia School District building.

"That allows for better communication," she said. "If I have a question, I can just visit the offices."

As an advocate for the victim, she makes sure the police department is immediately notified and that she can go with the victim or assist them in making a report. Additionally, she decides which therapeutic support services need to be in place; requests meetings with personnel and makes appropriate suggestions on a course of action.

Most of the cases on Hodge's desk so far involve child-on-child bullying or abuse.

"The adults [in the schools] are supposed to protect the children, they are sitting in place of the parents," she said. "If children are not feeling safe, they're not learning, and it's hard to work through trusting again."

Other large school districts suffer from overpopulation, a situation that can result in students and/or teachers' complaints disappearing into the crowds.

In New York City, the Office of the Special Commissioner of Investigation (SCI) has broad authority to investigate fraud, misconduct, conflicts of interest, and other wrongdoing within the New York City School District.

SCI was created pursuant to Mayoral Executive Order 11 of 1990 and Chapter 34 of the New York City Charter. It operates independently of the Chancellor and the Department of Education.

This SCI office seems to handle investigations rather speedily. For example, in August 2011, an investigation was begun of a 44-year-old teacher in Queens who they learned had a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old student. In December, they had completed the investigation and sent a letter to the Chancellor of the New York City Public Schools:

"It is the recommendation of this office that Charles Oross' employment be terminated, that he be made ineligible for work with the Department of Education, and that this matter be considered should he apply for a position in the New York City school system, with one of its vendors, or in one of its facilities, in the future," Special Commissioner Richard J. Condon wrote in his letter to Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott.

"We have referred our findings to Queens County District Attorney Richard A. Brown for whatever action he deems appropriate."

In 2011, 561 of the complaints received at SCI involved an allegation of sexual misconduct. Of those, 257 investigations were opened, which represents at 16 percent increase over the 222 investigations opened in 2010.

Sexual allegations include criminal acts, inappropriate relationships with students who have reached the age of consent and physical and verbal harassment of a sexual nature.

The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has an Employee Discipline and Due Process Policy, which identifies five categories of misconduct with group five being the most egregious and automatically dischargeable offenses:

5-9: Any cruel, negligent, or criminal conduct or communication to a student that causes psychological or physical harm or injury to a student.

5-10: Soliciting, commanding, urging, inciting or requesting a sexual act of a student; or intentionally or knowingly engaging in any sexual conduct or act with a student.

5-17: Violating the school or board rules, policies or procedures which result in behaviors that grossly disrupt the orderly educational process in the classroom, in the school, and may occur on or off school grounds or assigned work location.

"CPS treats this offense harshly, and we have no tolerance for this type of behavior. CPS seeks the discharge of any employee that engages in sexual misconduct with a student," press secretary Marielle Sainvilus said. "Overall, we have not seen an increase in sexual misconduct since 2009," she added.

Schools, by far, aren't the only institutions that have suffered in the media spotlight because of allegations of sex abuse. The largest U.S. youth organization, the Boy Scouts of America recorded more than 2,000 incidents prior to 1994. In response, they created a sex abuse education and prevention program.

In the 1980s, the Catholic Church saw a series of convictions, trials and investigations into allegations is sex crimes committed by priests. Since then, the church has instituted reforms requiring background checks for employees and volunteers.


The cost of sexual abuse

Lawsuits loom for LAUSD

By Juliana Norwood
OW Staff Writer

With the recent spate of sexual misconduct cases hitting Los Angeles Unified School District, it's only a matter of time before these incidents turn into lawsuits against the district.

Luis Carrillo, the attorney representing the majority of the Miramonte Elementary School victims, has already filed 33 claims against the district--20 for the students and 13 on behalf of their parents. He alleges that the abuse happened as a result of the district's negligence. Although at this point, the claims do not ask for monetary damages if the district does not address the claims by April 16--45 days from the day the claims were filed--Carrillo says, at that point they will become lawsuits.

So where does this money come from? According to Los Angeles Unified School District lawyer George McNair, it comes from tax dollars.

The state spent $45 billion in 2009-10--52 percent of the total budget--on education, including payments to school districts, community colleges, and universities and provided 56 percent of all K-12 school funding.

"If these cases turn into lawsuits, the (payout) will come from taxpayers," McNair said. "We try to be judicious, when it comes to things like this and we do have insurance policies in place but (they) don't kick in until we have paid a considerable amount--$5 million is our self-insured retention (essentially the district's deductible).

Of all of the revenue that the district receives, about 80-90 percent of it goes into the general fund, which is where the money will come from to fund potential lawsuits. This could cause other areas in the district to suffer.