The arrest of Los Angeles elementary school teacher Mark Berndt in late January on charges that he allegedly bound and photographed some of his students and had them drink his semen from spoons, seems both unimaginable and sadly realistic.
The unimaginable part has many facets. How could this man abuse these children, in such ways, and for so long, without notice by his peer teachers, principals, or LA Unified School District administrators? Worse yet, was his psychological hold on these students so powerful that they either could not or did not choose to tell their parents. Or did they tell their parents, who were reluctant to believe them?
Some media stories have suggested that because Berndt worked in a lower socio-economic neighborhood in south Los Angeles, that the mostly Latino population living there has been taught, generationally, to respect teachers. So did this teacher use this need to show respect as a tool to gain leverage to get away with his crimes? Do those victimized by the sexual behavior of teachers and coaches have rationalized their irrational conduct? Have they missed the stages of sexualized "grooming" (also called "gradualism"), like flattery, attention, praise (which may not be received at home)? Have these predator educators exploited their victim's own desires to be mature and engage in the same physical relationships they see in their older peers or on TV and movies?
Do parents rationalize the same irrational behaviors because they don't feel comfortable questioning a degreed professional, don't think they will be believed by the administrators (who may have a circle-the-wagons mentality to protect one of their own), or don't have what they feel is absolute, irrefutable proof that the educator in question is engaging in illegal or unethical sexual behavior. (We can define illegal conduct as when an educator has a physical sexual encounter with a student under 18, and unethical conduct as when an educator engages in a sexual relationship with a student from his or her classroom or school (or following their graduation or dropping out of the school), who may be 18 or older, but may have been groomed for the relationship when the child was under age.)
The fact that many of the educators who become predators are often described by students, campus peers, and parents as "dedicated, amazing, awesome, in touch, connected, invested in their students and their schools," makes it that much tougher for a parent (or a district supervisor or a peer teacher) to believe what might seem obvious to an outsider, a cop, or a social worker. (One of my clinical colleagues told me his research showed some teachers who engaged in sexual relationships with their students were always-on-campus workaholics or who had actually won "Teacher of the Year" awards.)
In 2004, Hofstra University researcher Charol Shakeshaft published Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature for the US Department of Education. Her study suggested that nearly 10% of U.S. public school kids, or 4.5 million students, had been victims of sexual harassment, rape, or sexual abuse. Her report described the prevalence of educator sexual misconduct, offender characteristics, their targets, and recommendations for the prevention of abuse.
What makes her findings so disturbing is how little fanfare her report seemed to generate. Perhaps the timing of her study was overshadowed by the national focus, then and now, on the child sexual abuse cases (and huge financial settlements) involving the Catholic Church. But as Shakeshaft told the media back when she discussed her report, the physical sexual abuse of school children by educators is 100 times more prevalent than the abuse by priests.
And while the dollar amounts for the abuse settlements involving the Church were often publicized as part of the closure demanded by the outraged public and the generations of victims, school districts are not always so forthcoming with that data. (One psychologist familiar with these civil judgments told me that the average settlement for these cases is $5 million.)
This case and so many hidden others like it, should remind us all of the need for better pre-employment and even mid-career background checks, closer monitoring by campus supervisors and district leaders, and better partnerships with parents, school districts, and students to create a culture of awareness.
We've rolled out national on-campus campaigns about drug abuse, gang and gun violence, and bullying. We need more face-to-face, mandatory programs that tell teachers how to identify potentially problematic sexual behaviors in their peers, talk to kids who may not understand that what is happening to them is wrong, and just as importantly, to help educators who find themselves about to do sexual harm, to know how to get help. (Some kids may have to change classes, some teachers or coaches may have to be reassigned to administrative duties while they get mandatory therapeutic help, and some will just have to leave the profession.)
Isn't it time for a national awareness program, where we discuss the real issue of sexual abuse of students from educators, using public and peer forums of administrators, PTAs, school counselors, teacher unions, school-based law enforcement, master teachers, and parents, where we define what vigilance looks like? Can we establish reporting processes that are realistic, confidential, and designed to identify real predators, and not ruin the careers or reputations of teachers or coaches who have not done anything wrong, by not creating rumors-only witch hunts? Can we institute sexual ethics programs for all educators which say, "We will let you teach, but if you violate the sexual, physical, and emotional boundaries of your students in illegal or unethical ways, we will come after your job and your freedom with termination notices and the police."
Changes like these often arise after public outrage reaches a boiling point, where our politicians finally see the wisdom of a measured but in-depth response, and where educators who want to protect their profession gather together to say enough is enough.
The 1980 song by Sting, "Don't Stand So Close to Me," described a teacher's discomfiting feelings for one of his female students. Too bad that song has become an anthem of sorts for some predatory educators who have forgotten their boundaries.
Dr. Steve Albrecht, PHR, CPP, is a San Diego-based trainer, author, and consultant on high-risk HR and security issues. He holds a doctorate in Business Administration, an M.A. in Security Management, a B.S. in Psychology, and a B.A. in English. He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org