Krista Kennell/AFP/Getty Images
Parents and children protest outside Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles, California, February 6, 2012.
A new report reveals that, in the weeks leading up to the arrest of Miramonte Elementary school teacher Mark Berndt, the Los Angeles Unified School District received exactly zero complaints of teacher misconduct. The week after? Nine complaints.
The report was created by the assistant superintendent of school operations for LAUSD, Earl Perkins, who used a relatively new computerized reporting and tracking system to find the data. According to Perkins, the complaints range from teachers possessing pornography, to engaging in a sexual relationship with a student, to rape.
After a janitor at an elementary school in Chatsworth was arrested, police said the mother of the alleged victim came forward because of publicity surrounding the Miramonte case. As it turns out, an increase in reporting is a common occurrence in the wake of high-profile sexual abuse cases. After news broke that former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky had allegedly abused several boys over the course of many years, calls to a local child abuse hotline doubled.
Lindsey Combs-Ronto, director of research and training and Supervising Forensic Evaluator at the Harbor UCLA Child Crisis Center, said the influx of complaints that comes with a newsbreak is a double-edged sword.
“It is the case that more true victims do come forward, because it removes that stigma that often comes attached to being a victim of sexual abuse,” she said. “At the same time, other kids, other parents, other teachers – they become more hyper-vigilant about action from others and tend to report more and more things.”
Moreover, Combs-Ronto said attention-seeking kids themselves may come forward with allegations that are untrue.
“There’s still panic often, over child sex abuse, particularly when you have a really highly publicized case, like what’s going on in Miramonte,” said Debbie Nathan, author of “Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse And The Making Of A Modern American Witch Hunt,” a book about high-profile sexual abuse cases in the 80’s and the panic they set off.
According to Nathan, the case’s bizarreness makes it compelling to the media. She said that in New York, where she resides, everybody is talking about Miramonte. “The case becomes in parents’ minds a local problem, even in places 3,000 miles away, because they’re watching it on the media twice a day,” she added.
Forensic psychologist and expert witness in child sexual abuse cases Glenn Lipson described the mania, saying that “now you have plaintiff attorneys who are going out to Miramonte, [...] they’re likely to find any kid who ate a cookie. And when parents ask questions, they’re going to ask the sort of leading questions, and parents are going to be looking to find out if their child was abused, and they may end up with statements that are going to lead into the listing of more and more plaintiffs.”
Still, Lipson said he welcomes any allegations, even if they end up being false. Lipson went on to say that what’s important is training people to properly decipher fact from fiction. “You have to really train people in terms of policy, gut-checks. Reporting of suspicions is for that reason — it’s just to take away the smoke and find out there’s no fire,” he said.
Lindsey Combs-Ronto of the Harbor UCLA Child Crisis Center also encourages people to speak out. “I think what people often believe is when they report, they’re actually accusing someone of doing something but they’re really not. They’re saying that they have a question about a particular situation, and it’s not their capacity to investigate,” she said.
What’s behind the outbreak in reporting? Is it because awareness is increasing among parents, students, teachers and administrators? Or do victims who were afraid to come forward now think their story will be believed? Could media furor over alleged abuse fuel panic and a heightened level of sensitivity? Is there a chance that people will make false accusations in an effort to be part of the story? What’s the cause of the increase in sexual abuse accusations at LAUSD? How does media coverage impact sexual abuse cases?
Lindsey Combs-Ronto, PhD, Director of Research and Training and Supervising Forensic Evaluator, Harbor UCLA Child Crisis Center
Debbie Nathan, journalist, author of “Satan's Silence: Ritual Abuse And The Making Of A Modern American Witch Hunt.” A book about high-profile sexual abuse cases in the 80’s and the panic they set off.
Glenn Lipson, PHD, forensic psychologist, expert witness in child sexual abuse cases, has developed a training to prevent sexual misconduct in schools.