PHOENIX – The Arizona Republic and KJZZ, the Phoenix public radio station, took a deep dive into the more than 180 allegations of teacher sexual misconduct reviewed by the Arizona State Board of Education from 2015 to mid-2019.
In Arizona, teachers are disciplined for sexual misconduct more than any other category of misconduct – about 40% of all disciplinary cases were categorized as sexual.
Every year, about 40 teachers are disciplined by the Arizona State Board of Education or surrender their teaching certificate after allegations of sexual misconduct. Complaints range from inappropriate comments to students to years-long sexual relationships.
Two states knew about a teacher's sexual misconduct case:He was allowed to teach for 2 years
Many of the cases reviewed follow similar patterns. Experts say better training and awareness can help prevent these incidents. The Arizona Republic gathered advice from leading organizations and experts for parents:
How to talk to kids
The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an anti-sexual-violence organization, recommends that parents start talking to their kids about sexual abuse when they're young.
RAINN advises parents to:
Teach children about their different body parts and the names of those body parts, so they feel comfortable using those terms.
Tell children that "some parts of the body are private." Emphasize to children that people shouldn't look at or touch those private parts.
Teach children about the word "no." Children should know it's OK to rebuff uncomfortable touch. Parents should also respect a child's right to say no, such as refusing a hug from a family member.
Teach children about secrets. Make sure your kids feel comfortable talking to you about anything, so they don't feel they have to keep a predator's secret.
Make sure they know that reporting misconduct or something that could be uncomfortable to you or an authority figure will not get them in trouble.
Planned Parenthood offers additional advice for talking about consent and healthy relationships at all ages. To children under age 8, for example, the organization suggests statements parents can tell their kids, including, "You don't have to kiss or hug anyone you don't want to" and "You should never touch someone else if they tell you not to."
For older kids, statements become more detailed. For example, for kids age 12-14, parents can say, "Rape and sexual assault are crimes and are never the victim's fault. They are always the fault of the person who committed the crime."
Spotting red flags
Educator sexual misconduct often follows a pattern, starting with what's called "grooming," a strategic process where the educator will slowly lure a student into an inappropriate relationship.
Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied educator sexual misconduct for years, has outlined warning signs to spot educators who may be in or even past the grooming stages of an inappropriate relationship with a student.
1. Spending time alone with a student.
Shakeshaft wrote in her report that teachers who commit sexual misconduct often spend significant time alone with the student to build trust. The report said that this could present itself as after-school tutoring or home visits, which the educator also might use as an avenue for building trust with the child's parents.
This, Shakeshaft wrote, makes the educator's behavior less suspicious to parents. Parents "might feel a sense of relief knowing that a respected teacher has reached out to help," and this makes it easier to exploit, harass or abuse the child.
In one case The Arizona Republic/KJZZ reviewed, Julie Mai, an educator in Sedona, Arizona, was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a student. Mai spent significant time with the student, described in a dismissed lawsuit filed by the student's parents as "constant companionship." Mai would arrange for alone time with the student on school trips.
She pleaded guilty in 2014 to contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor, and in 2016 surrendered her teaching certificate. The district's attorney, in the lawsuit, denied the "constant companionship" claims.
2. Frequently complimenting a student.
Shakeshaft's report noted that in some cases of sexual misconduct by educators, he or she had regularly complimented or rewarded the targeted student by assigning roles such as class monitor or class helper. This paves the way for predators to develop a closer relationship with the student that includes regular compliments not given to other students.
This behavior, Shakeshaft wrote, can serve to instill trust in the student and could eventually provide an opportunity for the educator to engage in physical and/or sexual misconduct.
One former educator, Matthew Feely, surrendered his teaching certificate in 2016 after officials from the Cartwright Elementary School district in Phoenix reported what they deemed as inappropriate conduct, including buying gifts and giving money to students. The issue was categorized as a sexual misconduct case by the State Board.
3. Trying to blend in.
Opportunistic abusers – who Shakeshaft described as those who take sexual advantage of a situation but are not exclusively attracted to children – tend to "spend a lot of time around groups of students, talking with them, going to the same places they go, and trying to blend in."
Shakeshaft said predatory teachers "tend to be emotionally arrested and operate at a teenage level." They tend to know much more about the personal lives of students than other teachers typically would, Shakeshaft wrote.
Shakeshaft's report included data from Anna Salter, an expert on sexual predators, which concluded that abusers "work hard to be likable."
Salter added that popularity and likability are "often confused with trustworthiness." She wrote that this phenomenon leads to students' allegations being discounted and often causes further harassment of the student.
Brittany Zamora, the Goodyear, Arizona, teacher sentenced to 20 years in prison for having sex with a 13-year-old student, said she won a "Teacher of the Year" award in 2016.
5. Unusual behavior from the student.
The Children's Center for Psychiatry, Psychology and Related Services published a blog post on its website saying that sexual misconduct from a teacher can manifest itself in odd behaviors from the student.
These behaviors can include nightmares or sleep problems, a loss of appetite, mood swings, a new or unusual fear of a certain person or place, unusual knowledge of adult sexual behaviors and language, and/or not wanting to be touched or hugged.
Database: Teachers investigated for sexual misconduct since 2015
How to report concerns
Those who suspect a child is being or has been sexually abused can contact local law enforcement as well as child-service organizations such as ChildHelp at 1-800-422-4453 or RAINN at 1-800-656-4673.
If parents or adults suspect a child is being abused, RAINN suggests choosing a space to talk to the child where the child will feel comfortable. Parents should avoid judging or blaming children and reassure them that they're not in trouble.
The FBI advises trusted adults not try to confront the suspected abuser.