If schools hear that Uncle Joe or Fred the Handyman is molesting
a student, alarms will sound, mandatory reporting policies will
pounce into action and the powers that be will galvanize to
prosecute the perp.
But, if that abuser is a teacher, school administrators
may not be so quick to set the criminal justice process in motion,
says Terri Miller, an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse at the
hands of teachers.
Miller is the president of the volunteer organization Stop
Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation (SESAME), the
only organization nationwide with a mission to shine a light on
what the group says is an overlooked "epidemic" of molestations by
people in their schools-teachers, coaches, principals and
"The sad truth is parents simply can't trust schools to
follow mandatory reporting guidelines when it involves one of their
own," Miller says. "This is something that is going to put them
under a cloud of shame and humiliation."
Joe Klest, a Chicago personal injury attorney who
specializes in representing families whose children are victims of
teacher sex abuse, says he's handled as many as 400 cases over two
decades in practice.
Klest gets a couple of calls about predatory educators
every week, he says. Most of them are parents of tweens and young
"It's much more common than anybody thought," he
A parent who suspects sexual abuse at school will do well
to make the first report to police, not school officials, Klest and
Miller both say.
"If the school gets the first interview with the counselor
or principal, they may actually use that statement to discredit the
victim's account," Miller says.
Klest recently landed the largest civil sexual abuse
verdict in Illinois history and one of the largest in the nation,
when a jury awarded $28 million in punitive and compensatory
damages to Larry Snyder, who turned to panhandling to support a
heroin habit he used to dull the pain of prolonged sexual abuse
when he was 12.
Snyder's abuser, Michael Kenny, was a family friend, not a
coach or teacher. But news that Kenny was coaching children's
sports prompted Snyder to file suit.
"The perpetrators will groom the victims to think they are
consenting, when in fact, we know minors are not legally capable of
consenting," Klest says.
A student often carries that feeling of guilt and
self-blame into adulthood, he says.
"They grow up feeling they have engaged willingly in
something they feel is wrong," he says. "That's how they get messed
A spokesman for Chicago Public Schools would not directly
address SESAME's charge that schools don't adequately investigate
sexual misconduct reports.
"We take these matters very seriously when they are
brought to our attention and act on them as appropriate within the
policy and allowing for due process," Frank Shuftan, with the CPS
office of communications, wrote in an email response to questions,
accompanied by a 45-page policy on employee discipline and due
Even if many sexual assaults by teachers go unprosecuted,
it seems like another Chicago area school sex abuse scandal is
making headlines every time we open the newspaper:
In January, Plainfield North High School dance and
gymnastics coach Ashley M. Blumenshine, 27, was charged with
criminal sexual abuse after police say she allegedly had sex with a
16-year-old student in a vehicle behind Kohl's in
In April, Angelica Rangel, 24, a Spanish teacher at
Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park, was charged with criminal
sexual assault for allegedly having sex eight to 10 times with an
underage student after authorities found photos of him and Rangel
together in her bath tub. That month, Manuel Reyes, 55, a
third-grade teacher at a Round Lake Beach elementary school, was
charged with sexually abusing four children, police say.
In May, West Aurora High School band director Stephen P.
Orland was accused of having sexual contact on multiple occasions
with two students and a Joliet Central High School teacher resigned
after the district investigated a rumor alleging he had sexual
affairs with students.
In June, Darrell Stephenson, a 24-year-old volleyball and
soccer coach and former student teacher at Aux Sable Middle School
in Joliet, accused of having sexual contact with a 12-year-old boy,
was slapped with four additional counts of child
Still, Miller says, the cases that make news are the
proverbial tip of the mug sheet.
As many as 5 million students have been sexually assaulted
by teachers, according to a 2004 congressional report, "Educator
Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature," the latest
"We have approximately 5 million children suffering and no
one is calling for an investigation, for any kind of data to be
collected to find out why that many children are being hurt by
teachers," she says. "This is an epidemic."
Rachel Zimmerman is a counselor with Project Shield, a
Chicago sexual assault support center, who leads workshops in
boundaries and reporting sexual misconduct for teachers and camp
counselors. Teachers should never meet with students behind closed
doors, she says. They should only get together in rooms with
windows or open doors.
Parents should view any kind of private communication
outside the classroom as a warning sign, she says. Patterns of
coming in early or staying after school, getting rides home or
bringing home presents or prizes that not all students get are
reasons for suspicion.
"Any private interactions can be red flags that cry 'Pay
attention to me,'" Zimmerman says. "Few of these student-teacher
relationships start out being inappropriate, but they gradually
become more abusive."
Social media such as Facebook is further blurring boundary
lines between students and teachers, experts agree.
Zimmerman sees any Facebook friending between students and
teachers as inappropriate. A forum where students see photos of
teachers in their private lives, maybe even in romantic situations,
at parties or drinking, is a dangerous interaction, she
"First you're friending somebody, next you're sharing
personal information, then you're hanging out together," Zimmerman
says. "It's a very slippery slope."
If a teacher wants to use social media for class
communication, the educator should create a separate class page,
In the aftermath of the Blumenshine incident at Plainfield
North, counselors who came to the school to help classmates deal
with the scandal talked about social media ushering in a "power
shift" between adolescents and adults.
"Now, they look at teachers, clergy, policemen and
politicians and they are used to seeing real people who are capable
of making poor moral decisions," says Kirby Strohm, a licensed
clinical social worker and clinical director for the Therapeutic
Academic Program at Plainfield Academy.
Victims and survivors
The typical reaction to a female teacher having an illegal
sexual relationship with a teenage boy is to minimize damage to the
"When I was in high school, we all knew which guys were
sleeping with which teacher and we all laughed about it," Klest
The single moment that can make the difference between a
victim and a survivor is how the first person to hear about it
reacts, advocates say.
"If the parent says 'Oh, no, that can't be true. He's such
a nice man,' that just increases the pain and damage," Zimmerman
"If they say 'I believe you, we'll work through this, that
sets the stage for recovery."
Robyn Monaghan is a frequent contributor at Chicago Parent
and a freelance writer living in Plainfield.
Robyn Monaghan is a mother and long-time journalist.
See more of Robyn's stories here.
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