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Sexual abuse in schools is a national phenomenon

Lisa Olivia Fitch | 4/4/2012, 5 p.m.

The prevalance of sexual misconduct at schools is hard to determine because there is no national report or study that has examined educator abuse as its primary purpose. However, a 2004 report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education by Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University and Interactive Inc, Huntington, N.Y., found that more than 4.5 million children in grades k-12, have been subjected to sexual miscounduct by an adult at some point.

For decades in order to keep them safe, children were taught to stay away from "strangers." But according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, this concept is difficult for youngsters to grasp and does not take into consideration that often a child abuser is someone the youngster knows and trusts.

In the two months since the arrest of Mark Berndt, the teacher charged in the Miramonte Elementary School sex scandal, there has been a growing list of other accusations of inappropriate behavior by Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) employees. Law enforcement officials believe the increased reports are a byproduct of the event--more children, parents and employees are now encouraged to come forward with information.

Others believe that people are becoming more watchful and alert to a problem that is more pervasive than first thought.

Since January, there have been at least 130 people investigated for allegations of inappropriate behavior with LAUSD students, according to the state's teacher credentialling agency. Two of these incidents involved coaches and one of them involves a female teacher.

According to an investigation by the Associated Press, out of the more than three million teachers in the U.S., 2,570 were found to have engaged in sexual misconduct between 2001 and 2005. That's less than .09 percent of the total teacher population.

Although one bad teacher is one too many, the bigger question is not if one should trust their child's educator, but if they can trust the school district to stop that one bad teacher from harming child after child, in school after school, month after month.

Parents at Miramonte were aghast to learn that Berndt had been carrying on his lewd acts for years (between 2005 and 2010) with 23 students. All were between 7 and 10 years old and two of the victims were boys.

"It's a nightmare for victims," LAUSD Superintendent John E. Deasy, Ph.D., said. "We moved to remove him immediately (at the start of the investigation)."

Berndt was suspended in February 2011. Apparently, the LAUSD School Board could not alert parents about the fact that Berndt was under a yearlong L.A. County Sheriff's Special Victims Bureau investigation, or that hundreds of sexually explicit photographs had been taken of their children. He was finally arrested two months ago, on Jan. 30.

If convicted, Berndt faces up to life in prison.

The California State Education Code states that complaints against employees can be preserved in personnel files. On March 13, the school board unanimously passed two resolutions (district personnel are currently working with state legislative officials to craft some appropriate bills) seeking changes to that current state law; adding provisions that would create a central database of all complaints involving abuse; an automatic review of personnel files whenever an employee is reassigned; and urging the process for dismissing employees to be streamlined.