In the social hierarchy of prison inmates, mob bosses, bank robbers, and cop killers tend to get respect. But “short eyes,” those convicts who have committed crimes against children, especially sexual abuse, are hated, harassed, and abused. In schools, however, this group of detestable perverts rates a “meh.”
The numbers are stunning. A report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education in 2004 revealed that nearly 9.6% of students are victims of sexual abuse by school personnel, and these are just the reported cases.
Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation (SESAME), a nonprofit that works to stop childhood sexual abuse by teachers and other school employees, discloses that in 2015, about 3.5 million 8th-11th grade students, or nearly 7% of those surveyed divulged that they had experienced “physical sexual contact from an adult” (most often a teacher or coach). The type of physical contact ranged from “unwanted touching of their body, all the way up to sexual intercourse.” Even worse, the statistic increases to about 4.5 million children (10%) when other types of sexual misconduct are taken into consideration, such as being shown pornography or being subjected to sexually explicit language or exhibitionism. SESAME also explains that one child sex offender can have as many as 73 victims in their lifetime.
One might assume that these disgusting perverts would be rounded up, fired, and incarcerated, but all too often, that doesn’t happen. Most recently, Eric Burgess, a high school English teacher in Rosemead, CA was found to have repeatedly groomed students for sex, and had sexual relationships with female students over a 20-year period. Infuriatingly, he was allowed to resign without admitting to any wrongdoing and continued to receive his salary for another six months. The settlement agreement bars Burgess from working in the school district, but he can be employed elsewhere, and district officials agreed to provide a “content neutral” reference if he applies for a teaching job in another district.
On a personal level, I taught middle school with “Roy” in the 1990s. One day, this 8th-grade English teacher allegedly touched a female student inappropriately. There were witnesses, but the student involved would not press charges so he was sent off to the district office for a while – the so-called “rubber room” or “teacher jail.” Since firing him was not a viable option, the powers-that-be then decided to transfer him to another school, where he was accused of fondling another student. So he was sent back to the district office, where he whittled away his paid time ogling porn. Busted, he was transferred to yet another school, where he got caught sharing his smut with some of his female students. He was then returned to the district office, where the last I heard, he was waiting for his next assignment, courtesy of his union lawyer.
Perhaps the poster boy for perversity is Mark Berndt. This Los Angeles Unified School District teacher was arrested in 2012 for feeding semen-laced cookies to his second graders. Perhaps not as well-known is that his obscene antics began in 1983, when he was accused of (and admitted to) dropping his pants during a class trip, which he blamed on the fact that he wore “baggy shorts.” In the 1990s many students came forward and said that Berndt would masturbate in class. Then in 2010, investigators from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department came into possession of some of Berndt’s photos, which showed children gagged and bound, “sometimes with live cockroaches on their faces or about to eat a cookie covered in a clear white liquid.” The school district couldn’t get rid of him without going through a lengthy appeals process costing over $300,000. When his crimes were fully exposed, Berndt gamed the system by accepting a $40,000 bribe and retiring – but only after racking up another year of credit toward his pension, before finally starting a lengthy prison sentence. The various lawsuits against the Los Angeles Unified School District over Berndt alone cost the district some $200 million. When added to four other sexual abuse cases in LA, the cost to the district: $300 million.
A big part of the problem in Los Angeles and elsewhere lies with the teacher union-mandated labyrinthine collective bargaining agreements that must be followed before a dismissal is finalized. The expensive process is so laborious that many administrators don’t even bother trying to navigate it. Additionally, because about 95% of educator sexual misconduct cases are handled internally and not turned over to law enforcement, it is very easy for a teacher to go to a new school district or state without any legal baggage.
State laws – or lack thereof – are another big part of the problem. In 2016, USA Today journalists gathered piles of information and determined that America’s system for checking teachers’ backgrounds is a loosely-connected patchwork of state laws and procedures, inconsistent practices by school districts and state officials, and wide variations in who’s accountable for what and how accountable they are. They ranked the states, and while 15 got an A or a B, 22 states received a D or F. In fact, Rhode Island has had no law which prohibited teachers and other school employees from having sex with their students until June, when it passed Senate Bill 2219. The legislation outlaws any act of “sexual penetration or contact perpetrated by an individual with a position of authority upon a person over the age of 14 and under the age of 18.” (Those under 14 years old were already protected.)
There is not much help coming from D.C. on this issue. The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act includes some helpful language aimed at protecting students from sexual abuse and misconduct. Specifically, a provision requires states to adopt laws and policies that prohibit school employers from assisting or “aiding and abetting” employees or contractors in obtaining a new job if they are known or believed, with probable cause, “to have engaged in sexual misconduct with a student or minor.” But since the provision does not define “assisting” or “aiding and abetting,” and it bars the Education Department from prescribing the manner and form such laws, regulations or policies take, it is useless.
What we really need is a national database for teachers and other education workers who have been convicted of committing sex crimes against children. The U.S. Department of Justice already has established a database for sex offenders. It is imperative that we have a similarly organized collection of information especially for educators, where school administrators are legally bound to report any and every instance of pedophilia. This would put an end to child molesters going to another school or state and getting a new job with a clean record. Until this happens, our children will be at the mercy of agenda-driven union bosses, inept state legislators and corrupt/apathetic school administrators whose main interest is not to make any waves by simply passing the trash.
SESAME president Terri Miller, sums it up perfectly: “School systems have customarily tried to handle these situations by sweeping it under the rug, by letting child predators quietly resign and go on to another district, sometimes with glowing recommendations. We see that as deliberate and calculated child endangerment.”
We must change course immediately.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.