Claims of inappropriate relationships, sex abuse and misconduct filed against Pennsylvania school teachers are on track to double in less than a year, state officials say.
Second only to Texas, Pennsylvania and California each logged at least 24 cases of teacher sex crimes this year, according to news reports tracked by Terry Abbott, chairman of Houston-based Drive West Communications.
Nationally, “we’ve followed 416 (sex abuse) cases just since January,” Abbott said. “It’s an enormous problem all across the country, and Pennsylvania’s at the top of it. This isn’t a list you want to lead.”
State attorneys logged 450 complaints against teachers this year, ranging from benign arguments to criminal allegations. The state Department of Education recorded 482 during 2013.
Of those, about 100 resulted in official action that year, through public reprimand or suspension or revocation of a teacher’s license. Allegations ranged from drunken driving and drug possession to prolonged, multi-victim rape.
“The climate has changed,” said Alfred Blumstein, criminologist with Carnegie Mellon University, citing news media attention to assault cases on college campuses, in the military and among Catholic priests. “People are much more willing to talk about potential crimes … in part, because victims are aware the rest of the world cares that this is going on.”
Shane Crosby, assistant chief counsel for the Education Department, credited inappropriate student-teacher relationships for an “alarming portion” of cases.
“Social media has definitely increased that kind of conduct,” he said. “When I was in school, if a teacher wanted to talk to me, he had to call my home and talk to my mom. Now you can have 24-hour access to a student” through Internet sites such as Facebook and Snapchat. “That’s not always a good thing.”
The key is access to children:
• An Allegheny County judge on Monday sentenced former Avonworth music teacher Walter Street, 60, to three to eight years in prison. He pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a girl when she was 10. The rapes continued for years, according to a criminal complaint.
• Five days after Franklin Regional School District hired John T. Palaika, 31, to substitute in November 2012, the former Blairsville-Saltsburg chemistry teacher and athletic director voluntarily surrendered his license amid allegations that he invited Blairsville-Saltsburg students to play drinking games in his apartment.
• Jeffrey Hahn, 25, of Belle Vernon pleaded guilty to repeated sexual assault of a Bethlehem Center student in April 2013. Under his plea agreement, the former seventh-grade social studies teacher will serve four to eight years in prison.
Street, Palaika and Hahn are the exceptions among Pennsylvania’s nearly 150,000 working teachers and administrators, Crosby said, but cases such as theirs appear to be on the rise.
At least 233 teachers have lost their licenses since 2009 because of criminal convictions, most related to sexual misconduct, child pornography and assault.
Records show at least 65 social studies teachers were disciplined, as well as 54 science, 49 health, 46 English, 38 math and 19 art teachers.
Music teachers such as Street pervaded state disciplinary documents, accounting for 52 cases, or about one in 15 teachers for which a subject area was listed. Unlike other disciplines with dozens of dedicated teachers per school, most districts employ only a few art and music teachers.
Administrators and counselors represent about 20 percent of cases; classroom teachers make up the rest. Men ages 40 to 50 committed most of the infractions.
‘Address it now’
“The numbers are high, but there may have been more,” Crosby said. “For a while, we think there was some underreporting. I don’t think school entities were trying to avoid their responsibilities, but the laws weren’t clear enough. Reporting procedures are better now. Everything has changed since Sandusky.”
The landmark molestation case for which former assistant Penn State University football coach Jerry Sandusky is serving a 30- to 60-year prison sentence spurred broad changes in how state and local education entities approach relationships between students and teachers.
Changes to Pennsylvania’s Educator Discipline Act, which took effect in February, require a school’s chief administrative officer to report allegations of sexual misconduct, abuse or exploitation within 15 days of discovery.
A Tribune-Review analysis of disciplinary actions from 2004 to 2014 found they more than quadrupled in 10 years. At least one-third of all cases resulted in quiet resignations not immediately reported to the public. Since 2004, at least 332 teachers voluntarily surrendered teaching licenses before a state commission could pursue disciplinary action.
Crosby estimated 50 to 60 percent of those actions in recent years involved sexual misconduct.
“School district officials need to realize this could affect not just their current staff but the next generation of educators, too,” Abbott said.
Abbott, former chief of staff for the Department of Education under President George W. Bush, travels the conference circuit with a singular message: Address it now or the problem will get worse.
“The kids in high school and college now have grown up with this kind of in-your-face contact,” he said, citing sharing sites such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. “It’s their norm. So what happens when some of them become teachers in five or 10 years? Will they feel the same kind of social boundaries older people are already ignoring? Probably not. This is not a problem we want to gamble on.”
Use common sense
With no official state oversight of out-of-class communication, policies vary by school district. The state’s largest teachers union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, cautions members to doggedly monitor their social media accounts for inappropriate language, photos or links, and never to accept friend requests from students or their parents.
At North Allegheny, district policy prohibits electronic communication not solely related to academic content or issues. West Jefferson Hills and Bethel Park defer to the state Department of Education’s code of conduct. North Hills revised a detailed policy in 2012. Canon-McMillan did the same in 2007, urging teachers to avoid personal conversations with students related to dating or social activities.
“Tomorrow’s teachers have grown up in an era where it’s OK to share everything with total strangers, let alone people they actually know,” said Lou Manza, department chair and psychology professor at Lebanon Valley College in Annville. “Well, no, it’s not OK. You have to retain the ability to be impartial.”
When recruiting, Manza said, he feels foolish telling potential hires not to party or engage in sexual relationships with students.
“Every time I have that talk, I wonder, ‘Should I really have to say this?’ ” he said. “But clearly, it’s not all common sense. If it were, we wouldn’t be seeing this problem every day.”
Megan Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5815 or [email protected].