Some of the egregious cases of teachers sexually abusing their students are well publicized. Perhaps none more so than Mark Berndt, who did terrible things to children for years at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles. Shockingly, he would blindfold his second graders and feed them cookies smeared with his semen. The remedy employed by the Los Angeles Unified School District when Berndt was busted in 2012 was to bar lessons involving blindfolds and classroom-made butter. Seriously.
But the disgusting cookies were far from Berndt’s only misdeed. He had a track record of perversity going back to 1983 when he dropped his pants on a class trip to a museum, blaming it on “baggy shorts.” In 1992, several students claimed he was masturbating in class, and another student claimed he touched her inappropriately in the classroom. Then in 2010, investigators from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department came into possession of some of Berndt’s photos, which showed children gagged and bound, “sometimes with live cockroaches on their faces or about to eat a cookie covered in a clear white liquid.”
Due to apathy, incompetence, and union mandates that make it almost impossible to fire any teacher—no matter how incompetent or perverse they are—the school district couldn’t get rid of Berndt without going through a lengthy appeals process costing over $300,000. So, when his crimes were exposed, Berndt gamed the system by accepting a $40,000 bribe and retired—but only after racking up another year of credit toward his pension. The ensuing lawsuits against the Los Angeles Unified School District over Berndt alone cost the district some $200 million. When added to four other sexual abuse cases in Los Angeles, the cost to the district was $300 million.
More recently, the exploits of Santa Barbara teacher Matef Harmachis—a world-class sadistic pervert, not to mention a revolutionary Marxist—have been publicized. A few of Harmachis’ horrific activities include making anti-Semitic and sexually charged remarks to students. He also hugged a girl, told her to “rub her body all over his,” and said, “It’s okay if you come naked to class.” He told another girl, “Just because you’re good in bed doesn’t mean you can eat in class.”
Harmachis always avoided getting arrested or even losing his teaching position; instead, he was merely transferred from school to school.
Things changed in 2017, however. According to a lawsuit, Harmachis repeatedly sexually harassed, groped, and assaulted a student at Santa Barbara High School. It was alleged that Harmachis’ harassment and abuse of the victim often took place in his classroom in full view of other students. Harmachis was criminally charged with battery of Jane OB Doe, pleading no contest, and received a criminal sentence. As a result, he had his teaching credential revoked by the state and was terminated by the district in March 2020. The Santa Barbara Unified School District had to fork over $950,000 because it was decided that a lot more could have been done to get the abusive teacher out of the classroom.
“I have never seen a case where a school district ignored so many red flags and allowed a dangerous individual to have unfettered access to vulnerable students,” said Morgan Stewart, the victim’s attorney.
But how widespread is this sort of abuse?
A report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education in 2004 revealed that nearly 9.6 percent of students are victims of sexual abuse by school personnel, and these are just the reported cases.
Additionally, Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation (SESAME), a nonprofit that works to stop childhood sexual abuse by teachers and other school employees, discloses that in 2015, about 3.5 million 8th-11th grade students, or nearly 7 percent of those surveyed divulged that they had experienced “physical sexual contact from an adult” (most often a teacher or coach). The type of physical contact ranged from “unwanted touching of their body, all the way up to sexual intercourse.” Even worse, the statistic increases to about 4.5 million children (10 percent) when other types of sexual misconduct are taken into consideration, such as being shown pornography or being subjected to sexually explicit language or exhibitionism. SESAME also explains that one child sex offender can have as many as 73 victims in their lifetime.
Most recently, the Defense of Freedom Institute uncovered “a systemic failure by federal, state, and local authorities to prevent sexual abuse of students in public schools.” Released on May 31, Catching the Trash finds that public schools have experienced an epidemic of sexual abuse and that federal, state, and local authorities have not done enough to ensure that students are protected during the school day.
According to the report, “Between 2010 and 2019, the number of complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) alleging sexual violence against K–12 schools more than tripled. The most recently published Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC)—from 97,632 schools—underscores this unfortunate trend. For 2015–16, the CRDC reported 9,649 incidents of sexual violence; of that number, 394 constituted instances of rape or attempted rape. For 2017–18, the numbers were 13,799 and 685, respectively—an increase of 43 percent and 74 percent.”
DFI finds that when public school employees are investigated for sexual abuse, many school districts are under absolutely no legal obligation to notify parents or note the investigation in the employee’s personnel file. “This allows administrators to pawn off known abusers to different schools and districts in a phenomenon called ‘passing the trash.’”
The report points to collective bargaining agreements negotiated between teacher unions and school districts as a key contributor to the problem, as they “often allow for scrubbing of personnel files,” so no record of abuse is left once an offender leaves the system. State legislators—many of whom are in the pockets of teachers unions—are notoriously lax in this area.
DFI president Bob Eitel explains, “This report uncovers failures at every level to protect students from sexual abuse in public K–12 schools. What’s most shocking is the lengths to which teacher union leaders will go to protect their members suspected of abusing students and the number of states that have ignored their ESEA (Elementary and Secondary Education Act) ‘pass the trash’ obligations.”
In Waiting for Superman, Michelle Rhee stated that it took a while, but she finally realized that public education is really about the adults, not the kids. No truer words have ever been spoken. In too many cases, a small group of inept and/or corrupt adults—district administrators, state legislators, school board members, and teachers union honchos—is in charge of what has become an increasingly corrupt public education system.
Editor’s Note: A version of this essay first appeared at For Kids and Country.com.