Every day, Terri Miller receives a spate of Google alerts on her iPhone informing her that, somewhere in the U.S., a teacher or other school employee has been accused of sexually abusing one or more students.
“They come in sometimes by the hundreds daily. Weve been seeing increases yearly since 2014,” said Miller, executive director of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation (S.E.S.A.M.E.), a Las Vegas-based nonprofit that works to prevent sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment of students by teachers and other school staff.
The extent of the problem in Americas schools is impossible to quantify. No national database tracks instances of sexual abuse of students by employees in K-12 schools. But anecdotal evidence, spilling off the pages of newspapers and online news sites across the country, suggests something close to an epidemic.
Beyond the human toll for children who have been sexually traumatized by school employees in positions of authority, the costs to taxpayers when educators fail to properly intervene are staggering. In Southern California alone, teenage victims of sexual abuse in high-profile cases over the past seven years have been paid $312.7 million to settle their lawsuits against school districts. Among them:
- In August 2016, the Redlands Unified School District paid out $6 million to a former Citrus Valley High School student whose teacher, Laura Whitehurst, bore his child. He was one of three students Whitehurst was convicted of molesting.
- This August, Redlands Unified agreed to pay $15.7 million to settle three sex abuse lawsuits involving eight plaintiffs who alleged they were molested by Redlands High School teachers Kevin Patrick Kirkland and Brian Townsley, and theater technical director Daniel Bachman. It was the largest legal settlement in the school districts history.
- In May, the Torrance Unified School District agreed to a $31 million settlement with 25 current and former students molested by wrestling coach Thomas Joseph Snider. Most of Sniders victims were molested at Torrance High School from 2013 to 2015, but one victim alleged he was sodomized by Snider at Madrona Middle School in the 1990s. Snider was sentenced in October 2016 to 69 years to life in prison.
- Also in May, the Corona-Norco Unified School District agreed to pay $3 million to a special-education student repeatedly molested by teachers aide Steven Michael Martinez. The victim said she had been molested by Martinez at least 30 times, on and off campus, from the age of 11 to 13. Martinez, arrested in January 2013, pleaded guilty to three counts of sex with underage girls and was sentenced in October 2014 to 25 years in prison.
- In May 2016, the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed to pay $88 million to settle sex abuse cases involving 30 children molested by George De La Torre Jr. Elementary School teacher Robert Pimentel and Telfair Avenue Elementary teacher Paul Chapel III.
- And in November 2014, the L.A. Unified School District agreed to pay a record $139 million to settle legal claims with 69 parents and 81 students of Miramonte Elementary School who accused teacher Mark Berndt of molestation and the school for failing to address complaints of misconduct against Berndt for years. The Torrance resident was arrested in 2012 and pleaded no contest to 23 charges of lewd conduct, including blindfolding students and feeding them cookies laced with his semen. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
When educators fail to act[hhmc]
The common thread in nearly all these cases of multimillion-dollar payouts is that school districts failed to act when officials were alerted to suspicions about inappropriate behavior between teachers or staff and students.
Why is this happening at such an alarming rate? Whos to blame? And what can be done to stop it?
Experts point to myriad reasons: Inadequate training of school district personnel. Lack of consequences for administrators who fail to report suspicions as required by law. A reluctance to ruin a teachers life without hard evidence. Improper follow-up after an employee has been warned. The clout of teachers unions. A desire to avoid the black eye of bad publicity.
All of this, experts say, perpetuates the problem. Especially pernicious in some K-12 districts is a culture of cover-up of teacher-student sexual abuse that can allow predatory teachers to avert criminal investigations and continue teaching — and have contact with minor children.
“Theyre taking into account the protection of their own district and their own jobs over the safety of the kids, and its become a culture, and I think its rampant, and it goes from the very top all the way down,” said Gloria Seidule, a Stuart, Florida-based attorney who has litigated sex abuse cases for 30 years.
Protecting the kids must be top goal[hhmc]
“The number one goal needs to be protecting the kids — not themselves, not the school district, not the teachers,” Seidule said. “Wherever there are adults and children mixed, there has to be a higher duty of protection for them because predators always gravitate to where children are. School districts are magnets for sexual predators.”
Ron Labriola, an attorney who worked as co-counsel on each of the L.A. Unified and Torrance Unified sex abuse cases, said it is difficult to understand why teachers and administrators would turn a blind eye and not report alleged sexual abuse to law enforcement.
“I think its easier to look the other way for some administrators, and its in conflict with their duty to protect kids. Its morally outrageous,” Labriola said in a telephone interview.
A big culprit, he believes, is poor training by many school districts on Californias mandated reporter law, leaving many teachers and other school district employees confused about their obligation to report a reasonable suspicion of sexual abuse. Under the law, any school or district employee who fails to report such suspicions to police or child protective services — not school administrators — within 24 hours can be prosecuted for a misdemeanor.
Such prosecutions are rare, however. From 2012 to 2017, fewer than a dozen workers in Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties were charged by county prosecutors with violating the law, which applies to any occupation where an adult works with children.
Training must be more than bare minimum[hhmc]
“What I think it comes back to is school districts failure to yearly train its teachers and staff,” Labriola said. “Id say that training needs to be far more than the bare minimum.”
He pointed out that no administrators at either L.A Unified or Torrance Unified were fired for failing to report the now-convicted teachers, despite repeated warnings of their suspicious conduct.
“I think that is the consistent, systemic failure among all the different school districts,” Labriola said. “Until school districts start firing those who fail to report and fail to protect the kids, I dont see this changing.”
In Redlands Unified, no one has been fired or charged with a crime for not disclosing suspicions about Whitehurst, Kirkland and at least two other sexually abusive employees, even after sometimes years of complaints about inappropriate behavior.
Sabine Robertson-Phillips, the school districts human resources director at the center of in-house investigations into alleged sexual abuse, even tried to thwart a criminal probe into Redlands Unified teachers, according to two police detectives.
Although the detectives who led the criminal investigation of Whitehurst believed there was sufficient evidence to charge Robertson-Phillips and then-Citrus Valley Principal Bernard Cavanagh for failing to report Whitehurst to police, the San Bernardino County District Attorneys Office declined to file charges, citing insufficient evidence.
Cavanagh subsequently was promoted to assistant superintendent of business services for Redlands Unified and Robertson-Phillips remained in her post as the districts HR director.
Based on a yearlong investigation by the Southern California News Group into whether Redlands Unified administrators covered up sexual misconduct by its employees, a state agency that enforces professional standards for California educators is now investigating the district, according to an attorney representing several of the victims.
That attorney, Morgan Stewart, blames a lack of consequences for school and district staff for a perpetuation of the problem.
“We have seen that the mindset of administrators seems to be protect the teacher first, student second. This is evidenced by the cover-ups, refusals to act and destruction of evidence that came out during both the Whitehurst and Kirkland investigations,” Stewart said.
“The behavior belies a bigger issue — that teachers and administrators are not being criminally prosecuted for these acts or failures to act and, therefore, they suffer no repercussions for the failure to protect children. The system fails and that failure falls directly on the students who were abused, victimizing them for a second time.”
Passing the trash[hhmc]
Charles J. Hobson, a professor of management at Indiana University Northwest, wrote a book, “Passing the Trash: A Parents Guide to Combat Sexual Abuse/Harassment of Their Children in School,” that shines a light on the cloak of secrecy in some school districts.
The overwhelming majority of school administrators, teachers and union officials, Hobson says, opt to maintain a “strict code of silence” and let administrators secretly negotiate exit agreements that allow problem teachers to continue teaching at other schools in other districts. He labels that process “passing the trash.”
Redlands Unified administrators, he said in a telephone interview, should face criminal charges based on their failures in the Kirkland and Whitehurst cases.
“They are putting the interests of themselves and personal reputations above the safety of children,” he said. “I find that very objectionable. What I would like to see is (Redlands Unified) senior administrators charged with failure to report and being an accessory to child sexual abuse. They should be removed from their positions.”
Hobson referred to the number of incidents involving students sexually abused by teachers in K-12 schools as a “pandemic.”
Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University who authored a 2004 U.S. Department of Education study into sexual abuse of K-12 students, believes school administrators are often reluctant to discipline teachers.
“Adults protect adults, not children, no matter what they say,” Shakeshaft said. “Unless we provide training and supervision, most school employees are not going to question problematic behavior and boundary crossing unless they have actually seen sexual behavior toward or with the child.”
Indeed, Redlands Unified officials said exactly that when trying to explain why the district didnt alert authorities to suspected inappropriate behavior. “I cant take a chance … of ruining (the victims life) or a teachers life for something that is just gossip,” Cavanagh, the former principal, told police detectives in an interview in the Whitehurst case.
Warnings to Whitehurst and Kirkland
Frequently, Shakeshaft added, teachers suspected of having inappropriate or even sexual relationships with students receive a warning, but then are not held accountable or closely monitored by their supervisors to ensure the behavior has stopped.
In Redlands, Kirkland was given a warning about his inappropriate conduct, but continued to sexually abuse students in the absence of follow-up.
“The culture has to change,” Shakeshaft said. “That involves training for staff, students and parents, and, if that doesnt work, then administrators need to be removed from their jobs or the culture of the district is going to stay the same.”
Signs of change[hhmc]
There are positive signs of change in Redlands Unified, however. The district has launched a campaign called “See Something, Hear Something, Sense Something, Say Something,” and widely disseminated a poster urging those on campus to call a 24-hour CPS hotline — 800-827-8724 — or police to report suspected sexual abuse.
Even before that campaign was launched, the district dealt decisively when still another teacher suspected of sexual misconduct with students came to light last year. Former drama teacher Joel Koonce, 27, was forced to resign from his job and police and child protective services were notified of the districts suspicions. After an investigation, Koonce was arrested Nov. 8 and has been charged with 15 felonies for allegedly having sex with or molesting four underage students.
After he was terminated in Redlands in October 2017, however, Koonce landed a position at Ontario High School in the Chaffey Joint Union High School District. Whether his case is an example of “passing the trash,” though, is still unclear.
Teachers unions, experts say, also share blame for the problems with sexually abusive employees.
“The culpability of teacher unions in this particular issue is long, deep and as far-reaching as you can imagine, from your local school district politics to Capitol Hill,” said Miller, the executive director for S.E.S.A.M.E.
The powerful unions, she said, have thwarted legislation designed to block school districts from using gag orders to keep allegations of sexual misconduct secret and quietly negotiating exit agreements allowing abusive teachers to continue teaching elsewhere.
“Weve had unions obstruct too many good pieces of legislation on this issue at the state, local and federal level,” Miller said.
Laws strengthening educator accountability regarding abusive teachers have been enacted in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Connecticut and Nevada, but Miller said every state should have them.
“What I expect, and my hope, is that every state will adopt the S.E.S.A.M.E. Act,” Miller said. “If every state has this type of legislation in place, there will be no safe ground for these predators.”
Sen. Mike Morrell, R-Rancho Cucamonga, tasted the clout of teachers unions this year when he introduced a S.E.S.A.M.E.-sponsored Sexual Abuse-Free Education (SAFE) Act in California.
The bill proposes thorough background checks to prevent teachers and other school employees found to have sexually abused children from being able to quietly resign without notification to police or child protective services. It also would require anyone applying for a job at a school to disclose whether they had ever sexually abused a child or been accused of molesting one at their previous jobs.
The California Teachers Association, he said, quickly galvanized efforts to gut his Senate Bill 1456. The CTA claimed Morrells bill duplicates existing state statutes regulating teacher employment, discipline and mandated reporting.
“It was watered down so that more than 250,000 school employees would not be covered by these disclosure requirements,” Morrell said in an interview. “Im not going to water this bill down. Im going to try every year until I get this passed.”
Reporting system needed[hhmc]
Most experts also agree that federal policies need to be in place to track and log, at the national level, the number of teachers accused of sexual abuse annually.
“There has to be a national clearinghouse,” said Seidule, the Florida attorney. “If the teachers were reported to the state, then the state should have to report to a national database so districts can no longer pass trash.”
Shakeshaft, in her Department of Education report, said, “Educator sexual misconduct is woefully under-studied. We have scant data on incidence and even less on descriptions of predators and targets.”
Fourteen years later, no such data has been collected.
“They didnt want to do that,” Miller said, “because if the data doesnt exist, the problem doesnt exist.”