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It starts with a little extra attention and affection, a personalized note on a term paper and chummy after-school banter. Before long it escalates to hugging and explicit text messages. It's called "grooming," small indiscretions that child abuse experts say should alert principals and parents to a developing sexual relationship between a teacher and student.
But too often, these subtle cues go unnoticed until a relationship becomes inappropriate, or even criminal. Roy Junior High teacher Kenneth Taylor, who was charged 10 days ago with having sex with a former female student, is the latest addition to a growing list of teachers accused or reprimanded for fondling, seducing or pursuing the very students they're trusted to nurture and protect.
Sensational cases continue to make headlines in Utah, though there has been no discernible spike this year, state education officials say.
But sexual misconduct by teachers -- from inappropriate touching and downloading pornography on a school computer to full-blown molestation -- is a persistent and pervasive problem. It is the No. 1 reason Utah educators are forced to surrender their licenses. And the tools for preventing it haven't evolved much over the years.
"I talk about it every chance I get, at trainings, lectures and an education law class I teach," said Carol Lear, the state's top education lawyer. "The whole cell phone thing, texting and social networking. The landscape has just become increasingly complicated and sophisticated."
There are nearly 20,000 licensed educators in Utah, most of them hard-working professionals. But since 1992, the State Board of Education has suspended or revoked 313 teacher licenses, 208 of them (66 percent) for sexual misconduct. That doesn't include 10 cases under consideration before the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission.
In 2005, Utah ranked 16th in the nation for teacher sex offenses, according to an Associated Press survey of disciplinary records from 2001 to 2005 in 50 states and the District of Columbia. At that time, 52.7 percent of Utah teachers who lost their licenses surrendered them for sexual misconduct -- twice the national rate, the AP found.
Education and law enforcement officials can't say what accounts for Utah's disproportionate rank. Lear speculates it's because the state disciplines wrongdoers more rigorously than other states.
In Utah, all teachers undergo national FBI background checks upon hire and relicensure every five years. They must report suspected child abuse. "Inappropriate" communication with students is forbidden. Forfeiting a license for merely downloading pornography is common. And there's zero tolerance for sex offenses, including those plea bargained to lesser charges or subject to a diversion agreement.
It could also be because more victims come forward.
Deputy Salt Lake County District Attorney Alicia Cook believes victims are more willing to report abuse because of greater public awareness through news coverage and efforts to demystify the court process.
"I don't think this is coming out of the blue," Cook said. "This activity has been with us a really long time. We just haven't heard about it."
Substantiating and prosecuting sex abuse is difficult, said Cook, but resources to help victims survive the witness stand have increased over the years. She said child victims are encouraged to watch a video about the courts and often are allowed to see the courtroom and even sit in the judge's chair before taking the stand.
But national advocates argue child sex abuse remains grossly underreported.
Criminal screenings are far from foolproof, as many offenders escape notice and have otherwise clean histories, said Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center in Winona, Minn. "One study looked at the histories of 561 sex offenders and found they accounted for 195,000 victims. You could sexually abuse hundreds, even thousands of children and have only a 3 percent chance of being caught."
Vieth favors prevention through training.
Very few teachers leave college and enter the work force prepared to spot and report abuse, he said. They don't know how to pick up warning signs: teachers who "groom" students by crossing social boundaries and getting too personal.
They're not attuned to behavioral clues in students and should be reminded each year of their duty to report hunches, said Vieth. "It's about making it harder for a sexual predator to operate."
School principals can help by voicing their expectations, shunning locker room talk and sexual jokes, said Vieth. "Teachers should be role models and shouldn't be acting like they're at a bar."
Even pointed questions during the hiring process can help, said Vieth. "Those sorts of things make sex offenders really uncomfortable."
Many relationships between students and teachers eventually become public, but often not until the line has been crossed.
Taylor, the 45-year-old former woodshop teacher, allegedly met his now-17-year-old victim when she was 14 or 15 and a student at Roy Junior High, say police. The relationship turned sexual about 18 months ago and went unreported until August, say police.
It's possible a fellow teacher reported the crime; police won't say. But like so many teacher-student relationships, it allegedly began with flirtatious text messages and phones calls.
Last March, Linda R. Nef, 46, and Valynne Bowers, 39, two Bountiful Junior High School teachers, were accused of sexually assaulting the same 13-year-old student, after their separate relationships with him spiraled from personal conversations to the exchange of sexual text messages, phone sex and intercourse. Both teachers counseled the boy about his troubled past, which, according to testimony, included him being molested as a younger child. Bowers is in plea negotiations with prosecutors. Nef, who turned herself and Bowers into police, was sentenced in July to prison for three years to life.
Weber School District spokesman Nate Taggart said all principals in that district undergo annual ethics and sexual harassment training, which they're supposed to replicate at school.
That's true for most large districts, but more specialized training on how teachers can protect children and avoid misplaced allegations of abuse are "hit and miss," said Lear.
She is working on a computerized ethics test to be administered every time a teacher comes up for relicensing.
"It would be a teaching test, one of those you have to keep answering the questions until you get them right," she said. And in the future, Lear wants to create a short video with real-life scenarios illustrating red, yellow and green light behaviors.
"Our professionals are working in high-pressure environments that can be very isolating. They spend all day with children with very little input from peers. My gosh, their relationships are with children," said Lear. "It's becoming more and more clear to me that we can pass all the rules and legislation, but if we're going to solve this problem it will be through training."
Tribune Reporter Stephen Hunt contributed to this story.
Here is the status of some recent cases of teachers charged with sexual improprieties.
Oct. 15 » Kenneth William Taylor, 45, a wood shop teacher at Roy Junior High School, is charged with developing a relationship with a 14- or 15-year-old student, which turned sexual when she was 16.
Oct. 13 » John Robert Cody, 39, a social studies teacher at Pineview High School in St. George, is alleged to have fondled two girls and a woman at his apartment complex pool in 2008.
Sept. 29 » Keith Gillins, 61, a long-time teacher, boys basketball coach, former Fillmore mayor and an LDS bishop, is sentenced to up to life in prison for the alleged sexual abuse of a 16-year-old student in the back of his classroom.
Sept. 8 » Douglas Bullock, 42, a teacher at Bloomington Hills Elementary in St. George, is charged with 12 counts of third-degree felony unlawful sex with a minor for an alleged relationship with a 17-year-old boy.
Sept. 7 » Matthew Scott Adams, 31, a shop teacher at Cedar Middle School in Cedar City, is sentenced to one year in the Iron County Jail for allegedly videotaping young women through their windows. Some of the victims were students where he taught.
Aug. 25 » Churchill Junior High substitute teacher Christopher Benjamin Page, 20, of Salt Lake City, pleads guilty to one count of forcible sexual abuse after Sandy police find him and a 13-year-old female student both shirtless in a parked car.
Aug. 17 » Melissa Ann Andreini, 28, a former special education teacher at Helper Junior High School, is charged with unlawful sexual conduct with a minor stemming from an alleged relationship with a 15-year-old student. She allegedly paid the victim between $1,400 and $1,500 after the encounters.
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