A teacher at Bonita High School continued teaching for a week after being caught in January of 2006 in a sex sting in Riverside County.

A substitute teacher at Northview High School retained a full teaching credential for three months after he was convicted of molesting a 17-year-old he taught at the school.

Another teacher, who explained how he let young girls sit on his lap to gratify himself, taught in two nearby school districts before he was jailed.

These are only a few instances of a widespread problem in American schools: Sexual misconduct by the very teachers who are supposed to be nurturing the nation’s children.

Students in America’s schools are groped. They’re raped. They’re pursued, seduced and think they’re in love.

An Associated Press investigation found more than 2,500 cases over five years in which educators were punished for actions from bizarre to sadistic.

There are 3 million public school teachers nationwide, most devoted to their work. Yet the number of abusive educators, nearly three for every school day, speaks to a much larger problem in a system that is stacked against victims.

Most of the abuse never gets reported. Those cases reported often end with no action. Cases investigated sometimes can’t be proven, and many abusers have several victims.

And no one — not the schools, not the courts, not the state or federal governments — has found a surefire way to keep molesting teachers out of classrooms.

Those are the AP’s findings after reporters sought disciplinary records in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. The result is an unprecedented national look at the scope of sex offenses by educators — by of breach of trust.

The 7-month investigation found 2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, voluntarily surrendered or limited from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Young people were the victims in at least 1,801 of the cases, and more than 80 percent of those were students. More than half the educators who were punished by their states also were convicted of crimes related to the misconduct.

The findings draw obvious comparisons to sex abuse scandals in other institutions, among them the Roman Catholic Church. A review by America’s Catholic bishops found that about 4,400 of 110,000 priests were accused of molesting minors from 1950 through 2002.

Beyond the horror of individual crimes, the larger shame is the institutions that govern education have only sporadically addressed a problem that’s been apparent for years.

“From my own experience — this could get me in trouble — I think every single school district in the nation has at least one perpetrator. At least one,” says Mary Jo McGrath, a Santa Barbara lawyer who has spent 30 years investigating misconduct in schools. “It doesn’t matter if it’s urban or rural or suburban.”

Throughout the Southland there have been several examples of teachers who have continued to teach after being arrested for underage sex offenses, or who have not had their credentials immediately suspended.

Eric Olsen, 29, a former substitute teacher in the Ontario-Montclair school district, was convicted of lewd acts with a minor after his June 2006 arrest.

He said in a jailhouse interview that he allowed little girls to sit on his lap, and became sexually aroused.

Olsen told police that he was banned from Central School District in Rancho Cucamonga in December and San Bernardino City Unified School District in April 2005 for similar actions.

In the Central School District in Rancho Cucamonga, officials reported similar allegations about Olsen to the children’s services in December 2005, but the Sheriff’s Department said it has no record of the incident.

Jelani Kimble, a substitute teacher from West Covina, was also arrested in June 2006, and later convicted of oral copulation with a 17-year-old girl from the class he was teaching at Northview High School.

Although Kimble was convicted in August 2006, he did not have his teacher’s credentials suspended until November, and not revoked until February of this year, according to state documents.

A teacher at Bonita High School, Walter Edward Babst, continued teaching for a week after being caught in January 2006 in a sex sting on camera for a “Dateline NBC” program in Riverside County.

Babst’s defense lawyer and several local citizens who had seen ads for the TV program that showed Babst’s face called Bonita Unified School District and told them about him before Riverside County authorities got around to calling.

Activist Terri Miller from the Las Vegas-based Stop Education Sexual Abuse, Misconduct, and Exploitation Organization calls the movement of a sexual offender from one school district to another without being flagged as an offender “passing the trash.”

“We need laws that will aggressively hold accountable people who enable sex offenders by not reporting information on them to law enforcement,” Miller said.

She noted that the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing state agency is very active in suspending teacher’s credentials when they get information from local school districts and law agencies.

“The problem is often that local agencies just don’t make sure they tell the state,” Miller said.

Like Olsen’s, the cases that the AP found were those of everyday educators — teachers, school psychologists, principals and superintendents among them. They’re often popular and recognized for excellence and, in nearly nine out of 10 cases, they’re male.

While some were accused of abusing students in school, others were cited for sexual misconduct after hours that didn’t necessarily involve a kid from their classes.

The overwhelming majority of cases involved public school teachers, since many private schools don’t require a teaching license.

Two major teachers’ unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, each denounced sex abuse while emphasizing the need to consider educators’ rights.

Kathy Buzad of the AFT said that “if there’s one incident of sexual misconduct between a teacher and a student that’s one too many.”

In practice, the AP found less vigilance.

The AP discovered efforts to stop individual offenders but, overall, a deeply entrenched resistance toward recognizing and fighting abuse. It starts in school hallways, where fellow teachers look away or feel powerless to help. School administrators make behind-the-scenes deals to avoid lawsuits and other trouble. And in state capitals and Congress, lawmakers shy from tough state punishments or any cohesive national policy for fear of disparaging a vital profession.

Abuse also is treated with misplaced fascination in American culture.

“It’s dealt with in a salacious manner with late-night comedians saying, ‘What 14-year-old boy wouldn’t want to have sex with his teacher?’ It trivializes the whole issue,” says Robert Shoop, a professor of educational administration at Kansas State University who wrote a book to help school districts deal with sexual misconduct.

“In other cases, it’s reported as if this is some deviant who crawled into the school district — ‘and now that they’re gone, everything’s OK.’ But it’s much more prevalent than people would think.”

He and others who track the problem reiterated one point repeatedly during the AP investigation: Very few abusers get caught.

They point to academic studies estimating that only about one in 10 victimized children report sexual abuse of any kind to someone who can do something about it. When it is reported, teachers, administrators and some parents frequently don’t — or won’t — recognize the signs that a crime is taking place.

“They can’t see what’s in front of their face. Not unlike a kid in an alcoholic family, who’ll say, ‘My family is great,’” says McGrath, the California lawyer and investigator who now trains school systems how to recognize what she calls the “red flags” of misconduct.

In Arcadia, in 2003, some those “red flags” may have been apparent.

During a molestation trial for onetime Arcadia High School English teacher Phillip Sutliff, now 35, of Azusa, a onetime cheerleading coordinator at a local park told how she was seduced by Sutliff in 1993.

At the time, Sutliff worked at a nearby recreation center.

Earlier this year Sutliff had his California teaching credential suspended, but not revoked, after being convicted of 17 counts of sexual misconduct with a child under the age of 18.

Investigators said Sutliff, who will be heading to state prison shortly after his Oct. 26 sentencing, had an inappropriate, sexual relationship with a former student for 2 ½ years, beginning when she was 16.

But Sutliff’s single-subject teaching credential — issued on Aug. 22, 2003 and set to expire Sept. 1, 2008 — remains on hold.

A young woman who testified against him said that in 1993 — when she was 16 and he was 21 — they had a brief, consensual fling. The pair worked at Live Oak Park in Temple City.

“It shocks me that people don’t understand the severity of sexual abuse when it’s consensual,” said Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Phil Wojdak, who prosecuted Sutliff’s case. “The victims’ ability to have healthy relationships with men is taken away from them for years.”

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