Sex-with-student cases swamp area schools

Sex-with-student cases swamp area schools

Four area educators face criminal charges for sexual behavior involving students, two others were recently sentenced for similar crimes, and an investigation of a Franklin school employee was announced Tuesday. It’s an unusually bad run of activity, according to local and state officials.

The cases range from multiple charges of sexual battery for relationships between teachers and teen students, to allegations of pandering obscenity for “producing an obscene performance” involving a minor, and even charges of rape of a child younger than 13.

“We’re facing a challenging time right now with the numbers (of cases) that are there,” said Scott Inskeep, superintendent of Kettering Schools. “The piece out of this that I think is essential — please, for the students, for other teachers, for parents or guardians, if you suspect something, let us know. … It may be nothing. But (this time) when it was something, we did exactly what we needed to do.”

The head of one of the largest teachers unions in southwest Ohio said educators must take personal responsibility and draw clear lines in their relationships with students. Dayton teachers union President David Romick urged teachers to be cautious to the point of “standoffishness” with students.

Many local cases

Former Miamisburg Middle School teacher Jessica Langford and Kettering Fairmont High School substitute teacher Madeline Marx are set to appear in Montgomery County Common Pleas Court this week on felony sexual battery charges.

Langford, 32, worked for Miamisburg schools for nine years, earning good evaluations, but is now accused of sexual conduct with a 14-year-old male student at the school, according to Prosecutor Mat Heck. She is to appear in court Tuesday.

Marx, 23, was a substitute teacher in Mad River, Kettering and Oakwood schools, where Oakwood Superintendent Kyle Ramey said there were no “red flags” when Marx worked there. Prosecutors now accuse her of sex acts with 16- and 17-year-old male Kettering Fairmont High School students between May and September, court records show. She is due in court Thursday.

Those charges come on the heels of two male educators being convicted in similar cases.

Former Fairfield high school teacher Tyler Conrad, 26, was sentenced to 180 days in jail in July for sexual imposition and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, stemming from sexual activity with a 16-year-old female student in 2016, court records show.

Former Dayton teacher’s aide and coach Donte Murphy, 29, was sentenced to five years’ probation in October. He was found guilty of sexual battery for having sex in 2016 with an 18-year-old Ponitz Career Tech student whom he coached, according to court records. Another Dayton teacher, John Findley of Stivers, has a hearing scheduled Jan. 5 in his felony case of pandering obscenity involving a minor, who was a student at another school, according to court records.

In Logan County, Indian Lake Superintendent Patrick O’Donnell faces charges that include rape over a three-year period of a child under 13 who was not a student in his district. The 52-year-old has pleaded not guilty, and his trial is set for December.

How common is it?

Each year, the Ohio Department of Education’s Office of Professional Conduct reports its number of investigations into criminal sex offenses and “child services sexual abuse” cases that implicate educators.

Combined, those two categories went from 55 investigations in 2014, up to 69 in 2015, then back down to 46 in 2016. Year-to-date numbers are not available for 2017, according to ODE spokeswoman Brittany Halpin, and not all investigations result in findings of wrongdoing.

Another 150 to 300 investigations per year involved “inappropriate” relationships, behavior, or comments/gestures. But ODE officials said not all of those were of a sexual nature. Halpin said the department’s data is not separated in such a way to show how many of the investigations for “conduct unbecoming the teaching profession” are sex-related.

“You have to look at the big picture of how many licensed educators there are versus how many bad actors,” Halpin said.

The 2016 Office of Professional Conduct report says less than one half of one percent of the state’s 318,000 licensed educators were involved in a 2016 investigation of any kind, including things like academic fraud or falsifying an application, as well as sex-related cases.

Personal responsibility

While sex charges against educators are relatively rare, they are also not new. In 2013, teachers from Wayne and Centerville high schools were each sentenced to five years of probation and required to register as sex offenders for sexual activity with teen students. Cases pop up in media reports all around the country.

Asked whether sexual tension is inevitable when thousands of teachers, many in their 20s, deal with thousands of teenage high school students every day, two local leaders said teachers must take personal responsibility.

“I have to step outside my own frame of reference, where that absolutely never could be and wasn’t ever even a glint of a thought,” said Romick. “I suppose any time people are put together there are a variety of tensions that are possible. But that relationship between a teacher and a student, I think that rises above any kind of other interpersonal relationships that other people in the world have.”

Inskeep, the Kettering superintendent, said the licensure process and background checks are protections, but are no guarantee of the choices people will make in the future. Still, he said it’s not inevitable that there will be issues.

“I truly feel today that the training and communication that teachers receive when they begin, they understand that there’s a clear line,” he said. “We don’t know what’s in the mind of these individuals, their intentions when they make those choices. I can’t get into their heads. But I really don’t feel it’s inevitable.”

What can be done?

Halpin said Ohio educators are in the state’s “rapback” fingerprint system, which triggers automatic state notification if someone is charged with a crime, so ODE can notify schools quickly. And educators’ licenses can be immediately revoked if they are convicted of an “absolute bar offense,” which includes violent felonies, sex crimes and crimes involving minors, among others.

Romick said Dayton teachers have received training about interacting with students on social media and texting platforms, adding that teacher training colleges, school districts and unions can do more on that front. He said his union sends regular reminders to teachers not to touch students.

“That covers more than (sex), but … don’t innocently hug or put your arm around somebody. Also don’t snatch somebody’s wrist or grab their arm,” Romick said. “I firmly believe that responsibility is with the individual.”

David Vail, superintendent of Miamisburg schools, where Langford taught, echoed the “individual responsibility” statement, saying teachers who commit sexual misconduct crimes with students should have more ethics and “common sense.” He also urged everyone to report questionable behavior.

While sexual activity with students crosses a bright line, there is a question of what lesser behavior is questionable. Should a teacher give a teen student a hug, or talk about a relationship when a student asks for support?

Romick urged teachers to make clear that the relationship is professional and instructional, not personal.

Inskeep said social media connections between teachers and students have blurred that area somewhat, but he said teachers still have to know when to stop an interaction or refer a student to a counselor instead.

“When an adult senses that the line is crossed, or is close to being crossed, they have to put up the signal to stop, this is inappropriate, you’ve crossed the line,” he said.

State investigations

The Ohio Department of Education reached final disposition on 1,032 investigations of educators in 2016, on a wide range of academic, financial and criminal allegations. ODE does not have a separate breakdown of all sex-related cases.

46.4 percent: No discipline

25.8 percent: Consent agreement; can include a variety of discipline terms

16.5 percent: Educator’s license revoked or denied

10.9 percent: Letter of admonishment

0.5 percent: License suspended or limited

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