Special report: Teacher sex cases in El Paso part of national epidemic
Advocate says it is worse than church sex scandal
posted on the El Paso Times
By Daniel Borunda / El Paso Times
POSTED: 06/01/2014 10:49:13 AM MDT
The recent arrests of teachers in the El Paso area accused of sex crimes against students is part of a nationwide epidemic that dwarfs the priest molestation scandal.
Since the start of the year, there have been four felony criminal cases of teachers in El Paso suspected of having an improper relationship with a student, according to the El Paso District Attorney's Office. Three teachers have been arrested while one case in the El Paso Independent School District remains under investigation.
Teacher sex cases are hardly a problem unique to the El Paso region, said the president of S.E.S.A.M.E. (Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation), a victims advocacy group that tracks educator sex crimes across the nation.
"We have over 180 teachers that have been arrested since Jan. 1 — that is more than one per day," said Terri Miller, the group's president. "We find that to be a huge problem of epidemic proportions."
Though the exact number of victims is unknown, it is estimated that nearly 10 percent of children are victims of school-employee sexual misconduct ranging from sexual comments to rape sometime during their school career, according to a 2004 study for the U.S. Department of Education.
"The abuse that is happening in our schools is 10 times worse than the abuse that happened with clergy in five decades," Miller said.
In April, police in El Paso and Las Cruces arrested two teachers accused of sexual misconduct with students in separate cases.
In El Paso, detectives with the police Crimes Against Children Unit arrested Riverside High School social studies teacher Victor Talamantes, 39, on suspicion of having a inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old girl in his classroom and at his home.
In Las Cruces, former Centennial High School theater teacher Phillip Hernandez, 25, was arrested on suspicion of repeatedly fondling a 17-year-old male student. Hernandez resigned after being placed on leave. The Las Cruces Sun-News reported Hernandez was the third Las Cruces teacher accused of sex crimes arrested since March 2013.
"I think it's fair to say that, unfortunately, we are seeing increases in these types of cases," El Paso District Attorney Jaime Esparza said.
Last year, the district attorney's specialized Rape & Child Abuse Unit had five cases of improper relationships between a teacher and student. There were two cases each in 2011 and 2012. And no cases in 2010.
Esparza said it is not known why there's been an increase in cases but that it could be variety of issues, including more vigilant schools.
The other arrests in El Paso this year were:
•In February, El Paso Independent School District police arrested former Bowie High School teacher Eleazar Venzor, 33, on suspicion of having sex with a 16-year-old girl. Venzor was a math teacher, the girls assistant track coach and freshman boys basketball coach. He resigned in January.
•In January, El Paso police detectives arrested Roberto Vina Marrufo, 22, on suspicion of having an improper relationship with a 16-year old girl in September while he was employed as a teacher at Harmony School of Innovation-El Paso, a charter school on Fairbanks Drive in the Northeast, according to court records and a police spokesman. Vina Marrufo was indicted on charges of improper relationship between an educator and student, sexual assault of a child, sexual performance of a child and indecency with a child. Court records show he is scheduled to go to trial in August.
Since 2005, the El Paso County Sheriff's Office reported it had cases regarding six teachers and a teacher's aide on charges such as possession of child pornography, fondling, improper relationship and sexual assault. El Paso Police Department figures were not available.
Miller said that it is difficult to gauge the scope of the problem of teacher sexual misconduct because the U.S. Department of Education does not track such cases, schools are reluctant to publicize problems and decades ago teacher sex cases likely went unreported.
"When I was in high school more than 35 years ago, there were teachers sleeping around," Miller said. "The creepy guys. They would be gone one day to the next. They just seemed to disappear."
Victim advocates said that teachers suspected of misconduct would be transferred in a practice known as "passing the trash" in which a problem teacher is sent to different school or allowed to resign and move to another district. Advocates said it is believed that the practice has decreased but may still occur.
Miller said that teachers charged with sexual abuse have typically worked in three jurisdictions before they are punished. "This practice of 'passing the trash' is truly evil. It is helping and abetting child molesters," she said.
Miller said that one bad teacher could victimize multiple children before they are stopped.
Last year, Eastwood High School gymnastics coach Christopher Miranda was arrested and charged with allegedly having sexual relationships with three students — two 16-year-old girls and a 17-year-old girl. Miranda, 25, is scheduled to go to trial in September.
In 2012, former Irvin High School dance teacher and former "Viva! El Paso" choreographer Marco Alferez was sentenced to 50 years in federal prison on child pornography charges for making hundreds of videos by secretly filming students undressing at schools in the El Paso and Ysleta districts. Authorities identified 393 victims. He was also accused of having sex with underage girls.
The Department of Education's study on educator sexual misconduct in 2004 reported that about 4.5 million children are subjected to sexual misconduct from a school employee ranging from rape, molestation, verbal harassment and exposure to pornography.
The study's author, Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, said it is difficult to know if things have changed in schools in the 10 years since.
"I don't know," Shakeshaft said via email. "Certainly there has been more press coverage which has been very helpful. And there are more civil cases against school districts to recover damages to students who have been abused by an adult in a school. Some school districts are starting to train teachers and others in what to look for, but not nearly enough of them are paying attention to this. At the federal level, we can't get agencies to fund research on this topic."
The El Paso Times asked local school districts for the number of teachers who have been removed for having an improper relationship with students but public information officers said that information required an open records request. By Texas law, it can take up to 10 working days to receive an answer.
Social media and other factors
It is difficult to explain the apparent rise in teacher sex cases in recent decades.
Social media appears to be a factor in many of the illicit relationships between teacher and student.
"If I were a parent, I'd be a little concerned with social media," Esparza said. "Every student seems to have a cellphone now. The information that is out there is different than when I went to school a zillion years ago."
Social media, texting and cellphones allow teachers to communicate directly with students away from school. Though such communication could be a useful for tutoring and helping students, it can also provide a gateway to trouble, advocates said.
"When teachers are communicating with students via the Internet, cellphones, texting, social media — they are not face to face," Miller said. "They are communicating with them in more of an adult manner. We think the use of technology has really created a problem but also a paper trail for prosecutors to prosecute these crimes."
In the past, investigators had to rely on evidence such as notes, love letters and gifts, she said. Now, investigators in some cases can capture thousands of text messages detailing a relationship.
Miller said that teacher sex offenders have the same characteristics of sexual predators who "groom" their victims by paying them attention, flattery, sexual comments and flirting that breaks down the child's boundaries.
Victim advocates said warning signs include extra attention paid to a single student, such as special tutoring and rides home, and gifts and favors to the student's family.
Miller said parents should look for changes in behavior, such as student no longer wanting to go to school and if students want to quit playing sports they have played for a long time.
"Parents can talk with their children about what is and is not acceptable," Shakeshaft said. "Parents should monitor social media of middle and high school students and pay attention when children stay after school or go early to school to see the same teacher repeatedly."
The sexual abuse of students by school personnel was the focus of a report released in January by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The GAO was asked by members of Congress to look into the sexual abuse of students because federal law prohibits sexual harassment in federally funded education programs.
The GAO found that policies and methods to prevent educator misconduct vary from state to state and from school district to school district.
"The sexual abuse of students and sexual misconduct by public K-12 school personnel is a complex problem, and such behavior is particularly egregious because schools are entrusted with educating the nation's children," the GAO report stated. "There are no simple solutions to this problem and, although states and school districts are taking some positive steps, current efforts are clearly not enough."
The GAO report concluded that:
•Background checks can help identify past offenders but have limitations.
•Professional codes of conduct can help clarify what is considered inappropriate behavior. But they often do not apply to all school staff.
•Training on recognizing and preventing sex abuse by school personnel is not widespread.
•Administrators can respond quickly to limit contact when abuse is suspected, but their action can also hinder law enforcement investigations without close collaboration.
S.E.S.A.M.E., which was founded in 1991 by parents and educators, is pushing for stronger laws to weed out problem teachers and more research from the federal government.
"If 4.5 million children contracted leukemia, don't you think there could be some serious deployment of resources from DC to take care of the problem?" Miller asked.
Miller said that her organization is busiest during this time of year when the academic year is ending. Students may stop seeing the offending teacher and report abuse that occurred during the school year. Students victimized by teachers can have long-lasting emotional scars. The group is sometimes contacted after suicide attempts by victims, she said.
Teachers should report suspicions to administrators. S.E.S.A.M.E. stated that teachers may feel they could be damaging a colleague's reputation by reporting suspicions but teachers should also consider they could be prolonging the victimization of a child if abuse goes unstopped. The group's website (sesamenet.org) has advice and information for survivors, families and educators.
"The problem of educator abuse is far greater than clergy abuse," Miller said. "The big difference is that we are not mandated to send our children to church. We are mandated to send them to school."
Daniel Borunda may be reached at 546-6102.