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'Hidden in plain sight': Predators in the classroom on the rise in Pa., analysis shows

Original Article By Anna Orso |

State officials are on track to field more than 700 complaints against teachers and administrators across Pennsylvania this year, quadruple the number the same office logged in 2007.

In keeping with five-year trends, more than half of those are likely to allege sexual abuse, misconduct or exploitation at the hands of school employees.

They won't be unlike the complaint filed against Cumberland Valley High School teacher Emily Nesbit, a 31-year-old teacher who this year admitted to having sexual contact with an 18-year-old male student.

And they won't be unlike the one filed against Shawn Sharkey, a now-former assistant principal at Susquehanna Township High School who is accused of sexually abusing a 16-year-old female student.

Such reports are skyrocketing as Pennsylvanians have been reporting more instances of sexual misconduct since the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse case shook the state, and as technology improves to allow teachers unfettered access to vulnerable students.

Local victims of educator sexual misconduct who were contacted by PennLive for this story either didn't respond to requests or declined to discuss the abuse they endured.

"You believe they have all this power, you believe in the words they say and there is a camaraderie, and you don't see it as abuse," child welfare advocate Andrea Clemens said. "There's fear that other students are going to find out, because it's a really popular teacher and then these kids get scapegoated. There's a multitude of reasons to keep quiet and few reasons to tell."

The reports and abuse continue as state officials try — but sometimes fail — to regulate hundreds of thousands of teachers who have a license to teach in the state. Of those, a few hundred each year are accused of exploiting children for their own sexual gain.

And of that fraction of educators, some slip through the cracks of the justice system, able to have free rein and access to children in the one place where parents are supposed to feel safe in sending their children nine months out of the year.

"Sexual misconduct that leads to sexual abuse are behaviors that are hidden in plain sight in a school district; all you have to do is look," said Chester Kent, a former superintendent and educational consultant who has been involved with more than 120 cases involving teacher sexual misconduct. "But there doesn't seem to be any effective end in sight where we're curbing this behavior significantly."

Increase in complaints

A PennLive analysis of data provided by the state Department of Education has revealed a steady increase in complaints being filed to the state about educators' misdeeds. In 2007, 122 complaints were filed. So far in 2014, 542 complaints have been fielded, putting the state on track to receive more than 700 complaints this year.

The complaints can be filed by anyone, including parents, teachers and the Department itself. In 2013, about two thirds of complaints filed were done so by the Department. The rest came from school districts, educators, parents and others.

Terry Abbott, chairman of the Houston-based public relations firm Drive West Communications, tracks reports of teachers being accused or convicted across the nation of sexually abusing students.

He said Pennsylvania has logged 29 cases so far this year, putting the state at third nationally behind Texas (82) and California (30). Nationwide, 507 cases have been logged since Jan. 1.

Since 2008 in Pennsylvania, between 50 percent and 60 percent of cases in which disciplinary actions were imposed alleged some form of sexual misconduct, whether it's texting racy photos to a student or launching an all-out sexually abusive relationship with multiple students.

Clemens said she knows all too much about this.

Her popular ninth-grade science teacher, who was 18 years her senior, had begun showing an interest in her as she was finishing up middle school in the early 1980s.

At first, she was flattered. But the trusting relationship she'd built with the man soon evolved into full-on sexual contact for 10 years. While her friends were busy thinking about college, Clemens says she was driven to the side of the road and into the woods to be raped by her teacher.

She eventually got away from the sexual abuse. Robert Baker, her teacher from Norwood Junior High in Massachusettes, was later sentenced to 2 years in prison after it was discovered he'd abused two other girls. Clemens' testimony was used to establish a pattern of behavior.

Baker lost his license to teach.

Imposing discipline

Last year in Pennsylvania, the state Department of Education imposed discipline on 150 teachers. Seventy-seven of those cases, or 51 percent, involved sexual misconduct.

Other reasons for discipline included driving under the influence, theft and deliberate cheating on state standardized tests. Department of Education officials said some complaints -- such as parents filing a complaint about their child not making a sports squad -- are never investigated because they don't warrant such a review.

Some cases, on the other hand, are resolved with discipline at the local level. Shane Crosby, a former assistant chief counsel with the Office of General Counsel, said in July that the department will recommend that a school district discipline a teacher for low-level incompetency, such as showing up late for work.

In 2013, the department received 482 complaints, and resolved 114 without discipline. The department imposed discipline on 150 educators who were the subject of those complaints — meaning 264 complaints were resolved. That means many are still left open and under investigation.

Crosby said he's proud that of the hundreds of open cases the department is handling, 60 percent have been open for a year or less. He said that's an improvement, considering the office has two full-time investigators.

While the Department of Education's Office of General Counsel is carrying out sometimes multiyear investigations, the educators who are the subject of complaints will receive differing treatment based on the severity of the allegations.

Any educator charged with a serious crime, whether it's sexual or violent, will be placed under immediate suspension while awaiting a resolution to the criminal case.

Taking action

The department's ability to monitor these charges in real time was achieved as recently as this past September, when the office was granted access to the Pennsylvania Justice Network for the purpose of monitoring arrests and convictions of educators.

Below is how the Department of Education receives complaints against educators and investigates them:

1. Anyone can file a complaint, whether it's a parent, school employee or the department itself. However, the department does not accept anonymous complaints.

2. The complaint is reviewed for legal sufficiency and is dismissed, if no legal basis for discipline based on the complaint exists.

3. If a complaint is legally sufficient, the department notifies the educator that a complaint was filed against him. At that point, it also notifies the educator's current employer, and it will ask the employer for any relevant information regarding allegations.

4. The subject of the complaint is entitled to file an explanation or some other evidence for the department to consider.

5. Investigators fully launch an investigation, if the office still believes probable cause for an actionable offense exists.

6. Once the investigation is completed, if there is enough evidence for discipline to be imposed, in most cases, the department will enter into an agreement or settlement with the educator.

7. If a settlement of discipline is not reached, a formal notice of charges is filed with the Professional Standards and Practices Commission. The educator then has 30 days to request a formal hearing.

8. During a formal hearing before a hearing officer, the Office of General Counsel calls witnesses to testify, presents evidence, and seeks to prove a preponderance of the evidence or that the misconduct most likely happened. It does not have to prove it beyond reasonable doubt.

9. A hearing officer, usually a third-party attorney, makes a recommendation to the commission regarding discipline, and the commission makes a final call.

The system underwent several changes this year after a law took effect in February that amended the Professional Educator Discipline Act. These new regulations, signed into law as part of a package of bills drafted after the Sandusky case, give the commission new and expanded jurisdiction.

The law eliminated a statute of limitations in reporting sexual misconduct by an educator, and it clarified what school administrators must report to the department in terms of allegations and reasons for educators leaving.

Simple, but flawed

But this system, while seemingly simple, is highly flawed, according to experts and child welfare advocates.

For one, Kent said, the current system doesn't cooperate well with law enforcement and county Children & Youth Protective Services, making it difficult for fellow educators and parents to figure out where to go if they have a concern about a teacher abusing a student.

Kent said he tells parents and educators to, when it doubt, go directly to local law enforcement officials if a concern about abuse arises. From there, the department can file its own complaint against the alleged perpetrator.

In addition, legislators have attempted to pass a bill for three years that would make it more difficult for districts to allow educators accused of sexual misconduct to quietly resign and be hired elsewhere.

The legislation, widely known as Passing the Trash, was introduced by Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, but has stalled in the House. Similar legislation was introduced by Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., in Washington, D.C.

The bill also would attempt to fix a largely fractured background check system by allowing potential employers to ask references, if a potential employee was ever the target of an investigation, or if any allegations of sexual misconduct have been brought up against that candidate.

These efforts have tripped up legislators, and child welfare advocates blame teachers' unions for not backing transparency throughout the background check process. Union representatives refute that claim, saying they're generally neutral on the bill.

"We support efforts to keep schools safe, but we also support due process for teachers and other school employees," Pennsylvania State Education Association spokesman Wythe Keever said.

One of the most common questions legislators ask when reviewing the legislation is about how often educator-on-student abuse occurs. Experts say that's difficult to tell, as no national organization keeps track of it.

Charol Shakeshaft, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor and researcher of sexual abuse by educators, said some studies conducted show that one in 10 students experienced some form of sexual misconduct by an educator throughout their years in the school system.

This misconduct can range from inappropriate comments to sexual abuse.

Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, said the nation is on track to see between 500 and 600 educators arrested this year alone for sexual misconduct — and those are just the ones who are arrested and end up in the news.

In many of those cases, school districts reported allegations of abuse to law enforcement.

In many other cases, the reports never make it there.

Sometimes students don't come forward, either out of fear or confusion. Sometimes allegations are never brought to the attention of officials. And sometimes school districts allow teachers to resign, because there wasn't physical proof of abuse and because of confidentiality agreements signed with the alleged perpetrator.

"To me, that's criminal behavior. It's absolutely criminal behavior to deliberately put children at risk," Miller said. "It boggles my mind that the hands of the employer are so bound by bureaucracy."

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