The news is startling: Seven school employees in Fresno and Tulare counties have been arrested for suspected sex crimes against children since July 21. Five of the seven were teachers.
But what appears to be a disturbing trend isn’t actually that at all. Officials say the number of arrests and allegations against school employees this year is comparable to the last few years.
These employees have not been convicted of a crime, but cases against each are beginning to move through the courts.
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Steve Wright, an assistant district attorney in Fresno County, said his office tries between 10 and 12 sex-crime cases involving school employees per year.
Finding a solution to this problem is perhaps more distressing. There isn’t one – at least, not a simple one. Technology has been a valuable tool for law enforcement when investigating allegations, but it also has opened new avenues for potential abusers. School districts have thorough background checking they appear to be following, but most abusers are first-time offenders.
The best preventative measure, experts say, is still the oldest method: Parental supervision.
Fresno police Sgt. Dan Macias supervises the sex crimes unit and is a 21-year veteran. After surveying his detectives, he found that the recent arrests signify a slight uptick in allegations involving teachers.
10-12The average number of sex crimes cases against school employees per year in Fresno County.
Victims in these cases often are hesitant to come forward. They’ve been “groomed,” Macias said, by their abusers not to report the crime. This is often the case in child abuse cases, but it’s compounded by the trust that victims have for their teachers. The abuse typically is brought to light by a third-party – especially in the social media age.
Macias said social media evidence is a valuable resource for modern police, given that abuse often is reported months or even years after it occurred.
“(In teacher-student abuse cases), the teacher will do what we call ‘testing the waters,” Macias said. “They will see if they can start a conversation or whether there’s a response. They can then develop a relationship.”
But it also opens an avenue for potential abusers.
“Twenty years ago, a teacher would have to talk to them in person,” Macias said. “Now they can test the waters online and see if they can form a relationship that way.”
Macias recommended that parents closely monitor their child’s social media accounts.
Warning signs can be difficult to spot. Local districts require full background and reference screenings for all new employees, and any volunteer who will be alone with children must undergo at least an online criminal history check. However, most school employee’s suspected of sex crimes are first-time offenses.
Tricia Gonzalez, director of child welfare for the Fresno County Department of Social Services, noted that some cases are quite brazen.
It is not normal for a teacher to meet with a student off-campus for one-on-one help.
Tricia Gonzalez, child welfare head with Fresno County Department of Social Services
“It is not normal for a teacher to meet with a student off-campus for one-on-one help,” Gonzalez said. Hoover High School teacher’s aide Theresa Ramirez, 35, was arrested in August for allegedly having sex with a 16-year-old special-needs student during such one-on-one sessions.
In teacher-student cases, Gonzalez’s department often takes the initial abuse report and hands it off to the police department and school district. Social services focuses on combating abuse in the home, she said. It would only get involved if the parent was aware of the inappropriate relationship between their child and a school employee and did nothing, which is rare.
“In most of these (teacher-student) cases, the parents are devastated when they find out,” Gonzalez said.
She said parents should pay close attention to any changes in mood, such as an outgoing child becoming secretive, as signs of abuse. Changes in dress and suddenly having expensive gifts are also tip-offs about something unusual occurring.
Parents should also let their children know that they are not the only people a child can talk to about abuse, Gonzalez said. They could tell a principal or pastor. They can also call either the county or the police department directly.
Like Macias, Gonzalez knows the difficulties in investigating sexual abuse accusations.
“Victims are often hesitant to report sexual abuse,” she said. “They may feel as if they are in a relationship, so there may be loyalty.”
She continued: “They may be scared due to threats or coercion. Sometimes there are threats to hurt people they care about if they tell anyone. And there’s often a lot of embarrassment.”
Some students are at a higher risk for abuse, she added. If parents are working long hours, their child may not be getting the supervision they need, or they may be looking for attention. Children from homes with substance or domestic abuse problems are more often victimized.
Gonzalez said the county typically only has about 30 days to prove sexual abuse accusations. If the victim denies it or there isn’t enough evidence to move forward in court, social services will keep a written record of the accusations in case more surface in the future.