The evidence isn't pretty — criminal indictments for raping children, pornographic films hidden in a school ceiling and online chats soliciting sex from 13-year-olds.

The Utah State Board of Education has heard it all.

Every few months, in closed-door meetings, the board decides whether a teacher's license should be suspended or revoked.

While some educators lose their licenses for theft, substance abuse or fraud, an Associated Press analysis shows most suspensions or revocations are related to sexual misconduct. Utah's incident rate is more than double the national average.

Utah's figures were gathered as part of a seven-month investigation in which AP reporters sought records on teacher discipline in the 50 states and the District of Columbia.

From 2001 through 2005, the state board suspended or revoked 108 teacher licenses. Of those, 57 were the result of sexual misconduct, including sexual relations with students, viewing pornography at school or

criminal charges tied to off-campus sex crimes involving children.

Nearly 75 percent of Utah's sexual misconduct cases involving students or other minors involved physical contact.

"That makes me extremely uncomfortable. You're talking to a person who quite frequently checks to see within my ZIP code how many (sexual) predators are in the area," said Stacie Lawrence, who has four children in schools in Salt Lake City.

"You'd think people who go into teaching wouldn't want to go into it to harm children," she said.

Young victims

Across the country, sexual misconduct allegations led states to take action against the licenses of 2,570 educators during the five-year period. That figure includes licenses that were revoked, denied and surrendered.

Young people were victims in at least 69 percent of the cases, and the large majority of those were students. Nine out of 10 of those abusive educators were male. And at least 446 of the abusive teachers had multiple victims.

There are about 3 million public school teachers in the United States.

"We'd love to see all teachers be perfect, but all teachers are not perfect," said Utah school board Chairman Kim Burningham. "I think it is an indication of the extent of the problem we have in our whole society, and teachers are a reflection of that problem."

Numerous other licenses were suspended before any sex act occurred, cited by the state for violating boundaries of student-teacher relationships.

"It might be something less if someone's sending inappropriate e-mails or sexual flirtations. There's the guy who had girls jump up and down before he would give them their homework back," said board attorney and chief investigator Jean Hill. "It's that kind of stupid action. Maybe someone leaves notes on a student's car or is violent with a student."

The AP review shows Utah ranks 16th in the number of license suspensions or revocations for sexual misconduct.

Nationwide, 26 percent of actions taken on teaching licenses were related to sexual misconduct. In Utah it was 52.7 percent. In a state where about one out of every five residents is enrolled in a public school, many find the statistics jarring.

"It shocks me," said Rep. Carl Wimmer, a police officer and Republican lawmaker from Herriman who has sponsored legislation to impose the death penalty for some twice-convicted sex offenders.

"It's sad that we're that high up, that Utah, a state where family values mean something, a state where we're conservative and morality is important," Wimmer said.

"How many times do you see the news where someone says, 'This just doesn't happen in our neighborhood?' Sometimes I don't think people realize the extent of the sexual perversion that is in the underbelly of this state," he said.

Utah penalties

Often, those who have their licenses suspended or revoked have already pleaded guilty to a crime. Utah law also allows for aggravated sexual abuse charges if the person committing the crime is in a position of trust, such as a teacher, counselor or coach.

Wimmer would like to see a special category for teachers.

"Teachers who sexually assault or who have inappropriate sexual relations with students should be punished more severely," he said. "The bottom line, the reason why, is they are given such a position of trust. When parents drop their kids off at school, they have a right to believe their kids are safe."

Overwhelmingly, the more than 24,000 licensed teachers in Utah's school districts behave themselves around more than 500,000 students each year.

Each teacher undergoes a criminal background check before being hired, and the state checks a national database to ensure teachers hired from other states haven't had their licenses suspended.

When state lawmakers passed a law this year making it a misdemeanor to view pornography at school, the law was intended to give school-resource officers a way to prosecute students, not teachers.

But viewing pornography is one of the most common reasons teachers are suspended in Utah. Some teachers are caught looking at pornography by students during the school day. One teacher was suspended after pornography was found on a school-issued iPod.

"There are so many creative ways that could happen it's almost possible to anticipate. We also find still the old-fashioned way of a teacher that brings in porn magazines to school, so there's no end to the possibilities," said Carol Lear, a school board attorney who oversees suspension hearings.

Trouble spots

License suspensions start at the district level before a complaint is forwarded to state officials. State records show sexual misconduct among teachers occurs statewide, but some districts report more problems than others.

One of those is the Alpine School District in Utah County, which has had 11 licenses revoked or suspended for sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment, viewing pornography and sexual abuse of a minor.

The district's human resources director, John Spencer, says the district is aggressive about finding those violating law or school policies. It uses an Internet filter system that reports what search terms or Web sites were blocked and from which computer it originated.

"If it's shown that inappropriate access has been made or attempted, there's never been a case in our district that did not lead to termination," Spencer said.

Spencer said teachers are also trained about the appropriate boundaries between them and students. Sometimes, however, that training is ignored.

In 2002, a teacher at an unspecified Alpine high school had his license suspended following a guilty plea to three counts of forcible sexual abuse of minors. Spencer said an administrator filed a complaint after seeing suspicious behavior.

"Some of the common telltale signals are where a teacher or employee doesn't recognize professional boundaries. That seems to be the most common trait of people who have offended in this way," he said.

Heavier penalties?

After learning the results of the AP analysis, Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan, said lawmakers need to stiffen penalties for teachers who engage in sexual misconduct, including looking at pornography at school.

"My goodness, these people obviously have a problem to not even leave it at home," Buttars said.

He suggests pornography likely is at the root of other sexual misconduct.

"You watch porn during the noon lunch hour and your kids come back to class. Are you thinking about English or how different the kids look compared to what you were just looking at? It's sick," Buttars said.

"They should be held to a higher standard. The teacher is in an intimate relationship with the kids — talking to them, teaching them, being up close to them, becoming their friend, being trusted," he said. "They are in a very powerful position with these kids.... To find out this guy is bringing porn to school, yeah, there should be a severe penalty for that."

22 comments on this story

Lawrence considers herself an involved, overprotective parent. She's the former chairwoman of Wasatch Elementary School's community council and has frequent conversations with her children, ages 6-13, about how to spot and report inappropriate behavior.

She encourages other parents to do the same.

"If you don't talk to them, they don't know what to watch out for," she said. "With my tactics, I know that my kids are very aware of the world they live in and that they're not naive.

"I would hope that nothing ever happened to them. That's my biggest hope — and my biggest fear."