BY DIANE DIMOND
This is not a column you want your children to read unless you are prepared to have a very important and personal discussion. Then again, maybe that’s why I think it’s important to write this column. Recent events underscore the need to talk to our kids (again) about the sanctity of their own bodies.
In Los Angeles County, Calif., an elementary school teacher named Mark Berndt was arrested after a clerk reported developing disturbing photographs for the 61-year-old man. The clerk showed police photos of blindfolded young schoolchildren with their mouths covered with tape, and some of the children had “large, live Madagascar-type cockroaches on their faces and mouths,” according to the Sheriff’s Department.
Other pictures showed young girls being offered blue plastic spoons containing what DNA tests later indicated was Berndt’s semen. Berndt had been a third-grade teacher at the Miramonte Elementary School for 30 years. Police recovered some 600 lewd photos from his home. Some of the children in the photos have not yet been identified.
In New York, two simultaneous in-school sex abuse allegations hit the news. In Brooklyn, the FBI arrested 41-year-old public school staffer Taleek Brooks and charged him with Internet trading of pictures and video of himself engaged in sex acts with children. The victims were from the elementary school where he worked, and officials there said Brooks often took children on after-school activities, almost always with a camera in hand. His home computer had over 1,000 child pornography files.
Gregory Atkins, a 56-year-old teacher’s aide in Manhattan, was also recently arrested on charges that he convinced a young boy to strip off his clothes in a school bathroom stall and then attempted to fondle him, offering him money. Atkins had been accused of inappropriate actions with another boy, at another school, in 2006 and was recommended for disciplinary action. None was ever taken.
From California to New York and probably every state in between, teacher-initiated sexual abuse of children happens too often.
None of the suspects I mentioned here have been proven guilty. But the stories do act as a wake-up call, don’t they? I mean, we send our children to school thinking they are safe there as we go about our daily routines. But the sad fact is they may not be.
I digest a lot of information about crime every day, and it seems lately there has been a cluster of teacher-student abuse news. And it’s not only male teachers your children need to watch out for.
On the website Crime.about.com, there is a fascinating report about women who have been charged with sex-based offenses against young kids and teens, ranging from inappropriate behavior, like sex-ting, all the way to rape. As you scroll through the random 165 case studies (one case is listed twice), there are inescapable facts. In 97 percent of the cases, the women charged were teachers. Their confession/conviction rate is extremely high, and many of them have had to register as sex offenders. Nearly every state is represented on this website’s list of female predators. By my count, most of the student victims were male, but many were female — and the youngest reported child was just 9 years old.
For those teachers reading this and getting riled up, please, don’t write me to say I’m unfairly attacking your profession. I am not. There is a simple fact we all need to accept: Pedophiles go to where children congregate, and the law requires that children go to school. What more convenient hunting ground?
Yes, the overwhelming majority of our nation’s educators are hardworking, dedicated professionals who would never harm a student. But there is no profession that is untouched by predators.
I could only find one major study that dealt with the sexual misconduct of teachers toward students. It was undertaken back in 2004 by professor Charol Shakeshaft of Virginia and was commissioned by the U.S. departments of Education and Justice. Four thousand students were questioned, and some 7 percent reported they had experienced sexually inappropriate behavior by schoolteachers or staff. Apply that to the nation’s general population of young students and, according to Shakeshaft, that “translates into about 3.5 million kids.”
That makes me shudder. As any expert in the field will tell you, sex crimes are highly under-reported, so the number of incidents was probably higher in 2004 and likely considerably higher today.
Let’s not add to the hysteria seen outside the Miramonte Elementary School in California, where worried parents held raucous sign-waving protests after Berndt (and a second male teacher) were arrested for preying on their children. But let’s do use these recent events to sit down with our children and have age-appropriate discussions about who, where and when a grown up is allowed to see or touch intimate parts of their bodies.
The pediatrician? Yes, if mom or dad is close by. Your schoolteacher, sports coach or next door neighbor? No! But more than that. Children have to feel comfortable enough taking with you about this now so that if and when the horrible happens, they will know they can come and tell you right away.
Diane Dimond is a Rockland resident, syndicated columnist, author and special correspondent for Entertainment Tonight. Visit her at www.DianeDimond.net reach her via email Diane@DianeDimond.net.