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Sex abuse by teachers is plaguing U.S. schools

NATION: Keeping molesters away from kids has proven tricky

Published: Sunday, Oct. 21 2007 12:20 a.m. MDT

The trial revealed that Lindsey had been forced out of his first teaching job in Oelwein, Iowa, in 1964, after admitting he'd fondled a fifth-grader.

"I guess it was just lust of the flesh," Lindsey told his superintendent. He moved on to schools in Illinois and eventually settled in Cedar Rapids.

Now 68, Lindsey refused multiple requests for an interview. "It never occurs to you people that some people don't want their past opened back up," he said when an AP reporter asked him questions at his home outside Cedar Rapids.

That past, according to court evidence, included abuse accusations from a half-dozen more girls and their parents, along with reprimands from principals that were filed away, explained away and ultimately ignored until 1995, when allegations from Bramow and two other girls forced his early retirement.

Even then, he kept his teaching license until the Bramows filed a complaint with the state. He was never charged criminally.

Like Lindsey's, the cases that the AP found were those of everyday educators — teachers, school psychologists, principals and superintendents among them. They're often popular and recognized for excellence and, in nearly nine out of 10 cases, they're male. While some were accused of abusing students in school, others were cited for sexual misconduct after hours that didn't necessarily involve a child from their classes.

Vigilance lacking?

The overwhelming majority of cases involved public school teachers, since many private schools don't require a teaching license. Even when they do, their disciplinary actions are not a matter of public record.

Two major teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, each denounced sex abuse while emphasizing the need to consider educators' rights.

Kathy Buzad of the AFT said that "if there's one incident of sexual misconduct between a teacher and a student that's one too many."

In practice, the AP found less vigilance.

The AP discovered efforts to stop individual offenders but, overall, a deeply entrenched resistance toward recognizing and fighting abuse. It starts in school hallways, where fellow teachers look away or feel powerless to help. School administrators make behind-the-scenes deals to avoid lawsuits and other trouble. And in state capitals and Congress, lawmakers shy from tough state punishments or any cohesive national policy for fear of disparaging a vital profession.

That only enables rogue teachers and puts kids who aren't likely to be believed in a tough spot.

Abuse also is treated with misplaced fascination in American culture.

"It's dealt with in a salacious manner with late-night comedians saying, 'What 14-year-old boy wouldn't want to have sex with his teacher?' It trivializes the whole issue," says Robert Shoop, a professor of educational administration at Kansas State University who wrote a book to help school districts deal with sexual misconduct.

"In other cases, it's reported as if this is some deviant who crawled into the school district — 'and now that they're gone, everything's OK.' But it's much more prevalent than people would think."

He and others who track the problem reiterated one point repeatedly during the AP investigation: Very few abusers get caught.

They point to academic studies estimating that only about one in 10 victimized children report sexual abuse of any kind to someone who can do something about it. When it is reported, teachers, administrators and some parents frequently don't — or won't — recognize the signs that a crime is taking place.

"They can't see what's in front of their face. Not unlike a kid in an alcoholic family, who'll say, 'My family is great,"' says McGrath, the California lawyer and investigator who now trains school systems how to recognize what she calls the "red flags" of misconduct.

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