The cases seem to be popping up everywhere — and with alarming frequency.
Married English teacher Erin Sayar, 35, is accused of having sex with an 11th-grader at least eight times while supposedly tutoring him at his Brooklyn high school.
Michael Montgomery, a 49-year-old language instructor in Salem, Ore., is in jail and awaiting trial on sex abuse charges stemming from suspected sexual contact with a student.
In Bangor, Pa., just last week, former high school reading teacher Rachel L. Farrell was sentenced to five months in prison after pleading guilty to having an affair with a student.
Dozens of other relationships between teachers and students have been reported just this year, but analysts say it’s difficult, if not impossible, to know what is media hype and what is a genuine national problem.
A 2007 Associated Press study found that at least 2,500 educators were punished for sexual misconduct in just the five-year period from 2001 to 2005. Other surveys have been conducted since, but none of them tells the full story. Nor do they determine whether the number of cases is rising or whether media outlets are simply shining a bigger spotlight on the often salacious stories.
“There’s been no longitudinal study, and there’s no empirical data. The only ones we know about aren’t just the cases that get reported, but the ones that end up in some sort of litigation or action [against a teacher]. What we’re seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Robert Shoop, director of the Cargill Institute for Ethical Leadership at Kansas State University and author of several books on student-teacher sex and sexual harassment in schools.
“The problem is more severe than even the media would have us believe. The only thing we have to go on are reported cases, and there’s no question that the reporting has significantly increased,” he said.
Fifteen years after teacher Mary Kay Letourneau of Washington state grabbed the nation’s attention and became a tabloid sensation by admitting a sexual relationship with a 13-year-old student, a boy she subsequently married and with whom she had children, teacher-student sex cases make the news only when an instructor faces criminal charges or gets fired.
Mr. Shoop and other analysts think there could be hundreds of cases each year that either go unreported entirely or are swept under the rug by school districts trying to protect their reputations.
“It’s an epidemic. It’s an epidemic that’s been created by the concealment of these educators nationwide,” said Terri Miller, president of SESAME, the Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation organization.
Ms. Miller has taken aim at several states, such as Pennsylvania, which have what many consider lax laws dealing with sexual abuse by teachers. The state Senate’s Education Committee last month passed the SESAME Act, designed to tighten reporting requirements and offer more safeguards for districts.
Under current law, substantiated cases of sexual abuse can be kept quiet unless criminal charges or other police action have been taken.
Pennsylvania state Sen. Anthony H. Williams, a Philadelphia-area Democrat, is one critic who says the system desperately needs to be changed.
After introducing the SESAME Act last year, he called the state’s laws “a tragedy” and said such weak regulations “further magnify” a growing epidemic in America.
But the disturbing trend, while taken seriously by most, still gets mined for laughs. At its height in the late 1990s, the Letourneau case provided weeks of material for late-night comics.
Hollywood is also cashing in. On Friday, Adam Sandler’s flick “That’s My Boy” hits theaters, telling the tale of a high school student who fathered a son with his teacher.
Those instances, along with many others, underscore another problem in dealing with sexual abuse by teachers, specialists say. When cases involve a male instructor and an underage female student, it’s usually viewed as sexual abuse.
When the perpetrator is a woman and the victim a boy, it’s a different story. Those male students often take pride in having slept with an attractive teacher, analysts say.
“That’s how male victims are often discovered, by bragging in the locker room that they just had sex with Miss So-and-So,” Mr. Shoop said. “But the [psychological] damage that is done is typically not something that a 14-year-old boy has any awareness of.”
While tightening laws and changing public opinion are important, analysts say, the most important steps occur inside individual schools. Many districts offer little training for their faculty members on how to identify sexual abuse by teachers.
Too often, principals and administrators try to spot the classic pedophile at the expense of missing other offenders, said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
“People have this model in mind that there are child molesters roaming around looking for opportunities, so they go into fields like teaching. That happens, but I don’t think that’s the predominant scenario,” he said. “The predominant scenario is that teachers have problems. They have marital problems, they suffer from depression, or they feel inadequate.
“Working with kids, there are plenty of opportunities for sexual feelings to be evoked. Teachers find themselves attracted to students and aren’t equipped in how to deal with those feelings, so they end up acting on them,” he said.
Technology places even more responsibility on parents to discover abuse. No longer are teachers confined to initiating relationships in the school hallway. Facebook, Twitter and other social media give predators a new world of opportunities, making parents’ watchful eyes more vital than ever.
“There was a time when if a parent wanted to keep their child from having contact with someone, they stood by the door and didn’t let them in the house,” Mr. Shoop said. “Now, [predators] can have access to a child at 3:30 in the morning and parents have no idea it’s taking place.”