WIRE REPORT By the Associated Press | http://bit.ly/zw89zl
2/27/2012 01:01:27 AM PST LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Many school teachers across the nation are trained to pick up on clues of child abuse and neglect, but most are not trained to spot the signs of classroom pedophiles, leaving a gray area that could help teacher molesters operate undetected on campuses.
Experts say better training of school teachers and administrators in red-flag behavior could aid in catching molesters, pointing to the case of a former Los Angeles third-grade teacher who is charged with feeding some two dozen students semen-laced cookies, and blindfolding and gagging them over a five-year period.
"There are clear and consistent patterns of behavior. If you know what they are, they jump right out at you," said Diane Cranley, founder of Talk About Abuse to Liberate Kids based in Laguna Niguel, Calif. "But there's no awareness."
Only a fraction of the nation's 3 million educators are involved in any sexual misconduct with children. Although no national statistics are kept, a 2007 Associated Press investigation found 2,500 cases nationwide over five years where educators were punished for sexual abuse.
But that number is believed to be only a sliver of all sexual misconduct incidents.
Most abuse never gets reported because children are threatened not to tell, or are too ashamed. Moreover, many reported cases get dismissed because the child is not believed or the allegations can't be proven
Since last month's arrest of former Los Angeles teacher Mark Berndt at Miramonte Elementary School, six other cases involving improper sexual relations between students and teachers or school employees have cropped up just in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest school system.
Police and school officials attribute the rise to increased awareness resulting from that case's notoriety. They've received a flood of reports of possible sexual abuse since Berndt's arrest.
The prevalence of abuse reports underscores the need for better awareness training for school employees, said Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center in Minnesota.
Most school districts around the country require teachers and other employees to undergo training in spotting signs of child abuse and neglect. School staffers, as well as other professionals including police, physicians and social workers, are "mandated reporters," who are required by state laws to report suspected child abuse to law enforcement. If they fail to do so, they can be prosecuted.
But many training courses focus on how to detect signs that a child is being abused outside the school, such as drawings a child may make, behavioral changes, and suspect bruises. They do not generally include instruction on spotting suspicious behavior by a perpetrator, least of all by a colleague.
"We need to teach teachers that sex offenders don't wear trench coats, how to observe patterns, have that gut feeling and articulate it," said Vieth, whose organization has developed a college curriculum to help student teachers be more alert to protecting children.
Los Angeles Unified stepped up child abuse prevention training following a 2008 case of an assistant principal who was convicted of molesting a student. Part of the course involves showing employees how to respond to 40 different abuse scenarios, including that of a colleague molesting students, but not all school employees may have been given that particular scenario, said district spokeswoman Lydia Ramos.
In response to the Miramonte case, principals were mandated earlier this week to show staff the specific scenario involving signs of a campus pedophile, she said.
The problem is that the red flags of a child predator can be construed as innocent and easily dismissed.
Former students and parents at Miramonte Elementary School thought Berndt was kindly and warm, if a little quirky. Parents chuckled at the gym shorts and black tights he wore as part of a Halloween mouse costume.
He gave out cookies to kids and loved taking photos of them. He took them on field trips, sent them birthday cards and gifts, attended parties at their homes. He kept exotic insects in terrariums in his classroom and played funny music. He seemed to genuinely liked children and had a knack for building rapport with them.
But prosecutors say he also had a darker penchant -- putting his semen on cookies, taking photos as children ate them, blindfolding them and taping their mouths. He played what he told kids were "tasting games," sometimes pulling them out of an after-school program to come to his classroom alone.
Berndt has pleaded not guilty to 23 counts of lewdness on a child.
Overly childish behavior, over involvement with children and their parents, bestowing gifts and favors, singling out children as special, taking photos, being alone with a child and selecting children are classic signs of a predator "grooming" kids to go along with what he wants them to do, experts say.
Colleagues, however, may view those habits as not quite ordinary, but not sinister.
Informing on a colleague's idiosyncrasies is a difficult spot to put teachers in, said Frank Wells, spokesman for the California Teachers Association. "It's tough to go in and say so-and-so is weird," he said.
The state Department of Social Services' free training program for mandated reporters of child abuse covers different types of abuse in different settings, including sexual abuse, but it does not include awareness of pedophile behavior.
That may be an area where the program could be expanded, but it is a different training topic, said Jennifer Davis, assistant medical director of San Diego's Chadwick Center for Children & Families at Rady Children's Hospital, which has developed the course under a $600,000, three-year state grant.
"It is a slippery slope as to what is suspicious behavior," she said.
Child protection advocates say schools could simply do a lot more to minimize opportunities for pedophiles to operate. That includes enacting rules such as not allowing teachers to be alone with children, lock classroom doors or pull kids out of a class for an unauthorized reason.
That might have helped in a case in the Clovis, Calif., Unified School District last month where an elementary gym teacher faces various charges for allegedly pulling a second-grader out of physical education class and taking her to an empty classroom at least four times to play the "lollipop game" -- blindfolding her and having her give him oral sex which he photographed.
The case was discovered when the child's mother observed the class outdoors and noticed neither the teacher nor her daughter was there.
Establishing boundaries for interacting with children, such as forbidding home visits, giving gifts, informal field trips, or photographs, makes it easier to spot violators and report them, experts say.
"If you lay it out in black and white, it's very clear," said Cindy McElhinney, director of programs at Darkness to Light, a South Carolina-based nonprofit that conducts sex abuse awareness training and has conducted parent workshops at LAUSD. "Teachers get a lot of comfort in that."
Such rules have become de rigueur in recent years at organizations that serve young people such as Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Boy Scouts of America, which have been hit with sexual abuse allegations and lawsuits.
Charles Wilson, senior director of the Chadwick Center, which has strict policies governing employee-child interaction, noted that awareness is the key: "It's about turning that culture of silence into a culture of vigilance."