Family, experts discuss sex abuse in schools
By Ann Marie Bush
One study reveals almost one child in every 10 may be exposed to inappropriate sexual contact with a teacher during his or her school career.
A staggering number.
Monica Briner wasn’t aware of that statistic. Now, she knows that number and many more.
The study, “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature,” was conducted by Charol Shakeshaft, of Hofstra University and Interactive Inc. It was prepared for the U.S. Department of Education.
Briner’s daughter was a 15-year-old sophomore at Holton High School when she began engaging in sexual activity with a teacher 21 years older.
Tad Hernandez, 37, was that teacher. He was sentenced in September to 60 days in jail and 66 months of probation, and he has to register as a sex offender for 25 years.
Hernandez was arrested March 3 in Holton on charges of aggravated indecent liberties with a child and criminal sodomy. In August, Hernandez, who is married with three children, pleaded no contest in accordance with a plea agreement. The new charges were lewd and lascivious behavior and indecent solicitation of a child — both felonies.
“Mr. Hernandez was a prominent member of our community, trusted by almost everyone, including us,” Briner said. “He taught in our school system for 13 years and was part of the youth leadership and praise team at Holton First Baptist Church. He perpetrated most of his crimes in his classroom at Holton High School, after hours.”
When questioned about the incident, Nancy Meyer, Holton Unified School District 336 superintendent, said, “We have no comment.”
Perpetrators oftentimes are people who are well-respected, said Robert Shoop, an educational law expert at Kansas State University.
“That is how they get away with it,” Shoop said.
Experts like Shoop and Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, which is based in Las Vegas, say there are signs parents can look for.
“Parents need to look out for changes in their child’s attitude toward school, changes in attitude toward friends,” Miller said. “Are they becoming isolated? Is the relationship with the parent becoming combative?”
Signs of sexual abuse may not be obvious, but some examples are inappropriate interest of knowledge of sexual acts or avoidance of all things sexual in nature; nightmares, sleep problems or bed wetting; a sudden reluctance or refusal to go to school; and extreme secretiveness.
In Briner’s daughter’s case, the 15-year-old spent a lot of time with Hernandez working on special projects.
Miller said teachers often will do this while “grooming” students. The perpetrator will break down “the familial relationship and the peer relationship to isolate them and to build a trust with their target.”
Briner said the improper relationship between her daughter and Hernandez was suspected by his colleagues at school, his friends and her daughter’s classmates. But no one spoke up.
“In our case, Hernandez became a trusted friend that showered an adolescent girl with the compliments, treats, special privileges and answers to the questions normal teenagers have,” Briner said. “He soon became the only voice she listened to and the only answers she received as he caused her to distance herself from friends and family. Then, he sealed the deal by telling her he loved her and wanted to run away with her in three years when she turned 18.”
Grooming a student “might take four, five or six months,” Shoop said. When a student receives extra attention or favors from a teacher, “it is very natural for that child to be flattered,” he said.
If another teacher or administrator suspects a co-worker of having an inappropriate relationship with a student, it should be reported immediately to the school and law enforcement. And a parent who suspects something is going on should turn to law enforcement, too.
“They need to not put their trust any more in the school personnel,” Miller said. “Parents should go to law enforcement. Law enforcement officers are the trained sexual abuse and sexual misconduct investigators. School personnel can do more harm. They may be looking out for themselves, not the well-being of the child or family.”
And just because a student flirts or has consensual sex with a teacher doesn’t make it right, Shoop said. In many cases, a student can fall in love with the perpetrator.
“If the child walks in naked, you don’t have the right to touch that child,” Shoop said. “Even if a child flirts with the teacher, that doesn’t give the teacher the right to continue that interaction.”
A teacher is in a position of power and shouldn’t take advantage of that power, he said.
“The power paradigm is unequal,” Shoop said. “A child doesn’t have the power to give consent. A child is not capable of making that decision.”
Kevin Ireland, Kansas State Department of Education attorney, said that while the department receives about 20 to 25 cases per year of teacher misconduct, that number isn’t solely sexual misconduct.
In cases of teacher misconduct, KSDE has to serve a teacher with a complaint and notify him or her of a hearing date, Ireland said.
A professional practices commission, made up of nine peers, serves as the review panel.
“They don’t have the authority to revoke a license, but they make a recommendation to the state board,” said Kathy Toelkes, director of communications for KSDE.
Toelkes said she didn’t think a hearing date has been set for Hernandez yet.
“Mr. Hernandez would have the option of testifying before the professional practices commission,” she said. “He can be represented by counsel and can file an answer in response to the formal complaint seeking revocation of his license.”
However, Kansas State Board of Education regulation 91-22-1a states any license issued by the state board may be suspended or revoked by the state board for misconduct or other just cause, including conviction of any crime punishable as a felony and a conviction of any crime involving a minor.
“Our family will not be silent,” Briner said. “We will continue to share Tad Hernandez’s dirty little secret as an example of what a child molester really looks like and how they operate. My daughter will be forever changed by her abuse, but it will not define who she is. She was a victim. She is a survivor. I hope that in sharing the truth, lives are changed that would have otherwise become a statistic.”
Ann Marie Bush can be reached
at (785) 295-1207