SUNDAY EDITION | Recent teacher-student sex cases highlight 'worst type of abuse'
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – In just about 18 months, four Grayson County teachers were charged with pursuing illicit relationships with their students.
One was a popular high school baseball coach and business teacher accused of third-degree rape in November 2016 after he allegedly began a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student.
A high school social studies teacher and assistant soccer coach was charged with third-degree sodomy in March after a 17-year-old student allegedly performed oral sex on him at his residence.
And in less than a week last month, two Grayson County teachers in their 60s admitted to police that they had sexually abused students aged 14 and 17.
These alleged crimes aren’t limited to Grayson County, however. Earlier this month, a 35-year-old Oldham County High School teacher admitted she had sex with a 17-year-old student eight times on school property between April and June and was charged with rape, sodomy and unlawful transaction with a minor.
So far in 2018, the state’s Education Professional Standards Board has opened 16 cases in Kentucky as a result of allegations of “inappropriate” relationships between teachers and students, according to its data.
There were 29 such cases initiated during all of 2017, up from 17 in 2016. In both 2013 and 2014, the board launched 39 investigations, tying for the highest number in any one year.
The board reviews those cases that staff determines have “credible evidence” that the student-teacher interactions may have broken state law. It did not provide data showing how the cases were resolved.
In the recent cases, legal and social experts say the accused teachers may have not only violated laws that prohibit pursuing sexual relationships with students, but also a critical trust between educators and their pupils.
“This is the worst type of abuse that could ever be inflicted on a child,” Attorney General Andy Beshear said. “It leaves decades of trauma. It makes that child’s path to prosperity much more difficult.”
“It always starts with some type of trust,” said Alicia Gomez, deputy division chief of the Special Victims Unit in Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Tom Wine’s office.
“We teach children ‘stranger danger.’ The reality is I have been prosecuting child sex cases for over five years, and most of my cases are not ‘stranger danger.’ In fact, I can only think of a couple in my whole time here at the office that I’ve seen that have been a stranger to the victim. Most of the time, it is somebody that they know and love and trust.”
In response to the recent spate of sexual abuse cases involving teachers within the district, Grayson County Schools has launched a tip line to encourage students to report things like inappropriate behavior and bullying.
The district, which has more than 4,000 students, has also been contacted by Beshear’s office, which offered to provide training for school personnel in a letter Tuesday in light of the uptick in alleged teacher-related sex crimes.
The attorney general’s office is prosecuting the case against Roger Williams, a 62-year-old business teacher at Grayson County High School accused in May of engaging in an illicit relationship with a 17-year-old student since around Christmas. Beshear declined to discuss details of the case.
Grooming their victims
Teachers who seek sexual relationships with their students often have some insight into the personal lives of their would-be victims, sometimes even building trust directly with their parents before pushing forward, Gomez and Beshear said.
The affection of a younger student may make those teachers feel like they’re still attractive while sometimes the sheer thrill of knowingly breaking the law will cause them to pursue relationships with a pupil, Gomez said.
It can start with a friendly message on social media, a ride home from practice or offers of one-on-one tutoring after school, but Gomez says each advance is part of the would-be perpetrator’s attempt to “test the waters with the victim.”
Gomez says the relationships often start on social media before progressing to text messages and subtle physical interactions at school, such as a touch on the shoulder to see how the victim reacts.
“They’re seeing how far can I get, and so there is a lot of grooming that takes place,” she said.
For victims, the advances and illicit rendezvous can be simultaneously appealing and confusing.
Gomez said some fall in love and believe they’ll be in legitimate relationships with the adults once they graduate high school, denying anything illegal happened when confronted to protect the teachers. Other times, victims may simply want to move on once the illicit trysts stop before changing their minds years later, she said.
Coming forward can prove difficult for students. Gomez says her office will prosecute even if victims are reluctant to take the matter to court, particularly because evidence like phone records makes it easier to build cases.
Still, Gomez admits that prosecuting such cases can prove to be “incredibly difficult.”
“These are people that are members of the community that a lot of people have looked up to,” she said. “You know, ‘Mr. Smith, he was my science teacher. I don’t understand how he could do this. This is somebody that I’ve known and trusted.’”
“I think juries expect more than just a child’s word, which is something the victim honestly balances and thinks about when they come forward,” Gomez added.
In some instances, communities rally around teachers accused of sexually abusing their students instead of the victims, she said.
That’s what the parents of a then-17-year-old Grayson County student say happened to their daughter. They filed a lawsuit against the school district on Nov. 17, a year after police charged Grayson County High School teacher and baseball coach Gavin Logsdon with third-degree rape.
In the lawsuit, the student’s parents claim school and district officials failed to report the relationship when it first came to their attention.
The mother declined an interview request through her attorney, Luke Morgan with the law firm McBrayer, McGinnis, Leslie & Kirkland. But in the lawsuit, the teen’s parents say that school and district officials were aware of the relationship that occurred June through November 2016, accusing school Principal Todd Johnson and Grayson County Schools Superintendent Doug Robinson of warning Logsdon, a former University of Louisville baseball player, to be careful after he was spotted with the victim.
Following Logsdon’s arrest in November 2016, the parents say in the suit that Johnson met with them and suggested their daughter leave the district or enroll in its homebound program. The lawsuit claims their daughter was harassed at school and her parents “suffered public ridicule and embarrassment throughout the community.”
Robinson was unavailable for an interview last week and other district officials weren’t made available. Instead, the district resent Robinson’s previously released letter announcing the anonymous tip line for the 2018-19 school year.
“You’ve heard me state time and time again that safety is our #1 priority. And it’s true,” Robinson wrote in the letter.
“I realize that statement may ring a little hollow right now, though. As a former teacher I can assure you that our staff is fully committed to the protection and security of every child entrusted to us. As a parent, I can assure you that we consider them as our own when they are with us.”
Logsdon’s original April 23 trial ended in a mistrial because a full 12-person jury could not be seated. Prosecutors have requested a change of venue.
Becoming more aware
Today, parents should be suspicious any time a teacher starts showering their child with attention, Gomez said.
Her advice: Ask questions, become the teacher’s or coach’s point of contact and closely monitor what’s happening on your child’s social media accounts.
“You’re the parent. Find out what the password is,” Gomez said. “Make your child show you what’s going on. A lot of it starts with a few social media messages and then it becomes exchanging of phone numbers and then text messaging and then it just progresses. It doesn’t automatically start out where they’re meeting in the back of the school or somewhere else.”
“Any time that your child is playing a sport, there is no reason, and some people may disagree with me over this, but there is no reason that a coach should be giving your son or daughter rides,” she added.
Beshear agreed, saying parents should be cognizant of what’s happening with their kids on the internet, on their phones and in their schools. Any text messages between teachers and students should include at least one of the child’s parents, he said.
“Just be on the lookout for signs, and when your gut tells you that something’s wrong, don’t ignore it,” Beshear said. “Look further into it. Again, the best thing that could happen is that you’re wrong, but it may raise some important questions that may be impacting another child.”
Early intervention is key, they said.
“Have open communication with your kids,” said Andy Frey, a professor at the University of Louisville’s Kent School of Social Work. “Get in the pattern every single day of asking them open-ended questions about their day and who they’re hanging out with and what’s going on at school.
“If you do that from a very young age and kids get in the habit of that, they’ll very likely do that very easily until you get into the adolescent years, then they’ll resist a little bit but you can probably get it out of them anyway. But the difficult conversations will come more naturally if they’re accustomed to having regular, open communication with their parents.”
Beshear says improved training for school staff and cultural changes in general have helped break the stigma surrounding sex abuse, but Gomez says there’s still room for improvement.
“I still hear comments from juries that people expect a victim to act a certain way, and when they don’t, they just are like, ‘Well, that victim seemed not affected by this,’ and everyone handles situations, copes with things individually,” Gomez said.
“So I just think that as a community people are outraged when they hear things on the news, but am I seeing much of a difference in terms of in the courtroom, the kinds of results we’re getting? No, which is sad because I was hopeful that with the Me Too movement we would see a change in how victims are treated in these cases, but it’s still, there’s so much scrutiny of the victim.”
Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.
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