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Chester County Press

Editorial: Our newest pandemic

09/28/2021 07:36PM ● By Richard Gaw

The photograph of 56-year-old Luis Morales of West Chester, as it appeared on the front page of the Aug. 25 edition of the Chester County Press, shows a face nearly without expression – a matter-of-fact stare utterly devoid of all possible insight into the subject.

In the photograph, Morales’ eyes tell us nothing, because in the photograph, the eyes of Luis Morales – the truest portal to our soul -- are dead.

For those of us who have stared long and deep into that photograph in order to understand what may have led Morales to admittedly sexually abuse a young girl at the Nottingham Elementary School in Oxford between 2014 and 2016 – when she was in the third and fourth grade – our curiosity to understand what would compel him to engage in such a reprehensible act is usurped only by the degree of its degradation.

Our repudiation of Morales conjures up more questions and more photographs, seen in the eyes of other teachers who have sexually abused their students, and there, staring back at us, is the criminal residue of their indecency:

·  In 2016, criminal charges were filed against Jesus Omar Sandoval, a teacher at Lebanon Catholic High School in Lebanon County for an alleged sexual assault of one of his female students, who was 16 at the time. According to reports, Sandoval engaged in sexual contact with a female student on school property and at his home, between October 2013 and April 2014.

·  In 2019, husband and wife Nicodemo Baggetta and Ruth Ann Baggetta, two teachers in Lackawanna County, were found guilty of sexually abusing a former student for two years that began when the student was 16.

·  Rochelle Cressman, a former gym teacher at the Titusville Middle School in Crawford County, pleaded guilty to repeatedly sexually assaulting a 14-year-old student over a seven-month span between September 2018 and April 2019.  It was reported that Cressman initiated the relationship and engaged in sexual acts with him about twice a week. She repeatedly told the boy not to “tell anyone of the relationship” and even threatened to harm herself and the boy if their illicit acts were uncovered.

·  This past July, 40-year-old Seth Reich of Downingtown was charged with the sexual abuse of a student. Authorities said the now 19-year-old victim reported to West Goshen Police that she had been in a sexual relationship with Reich, her acting teacher at Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School Center for Performing and Fine Arts, when she was 17. 

‘We must do better’

When the charges against Morales were announced, Chester County District Attorney Deb Ryan echoed the cold, stark reality of a new pandemic.

“Chester County is seeing an unacceptable wave of students who have been sexually abused in our elementary, middle, and high schools,” Ryan said. “It is imperative that we implement safeguards in our schools and any other place children are to protect them from predators. Adults need to engage in oversight by watching out for children.

“Anyone who works with children has a legal obligation as a mandated reporter, but all adults have a moral responsibility to do the right thing to protect them. We must do better.”

DA Ryan’s call to action is not a warning but an alarm. To thousands of young people every year, schools are no longer a place of learning, but have become separate compartments of demarcation, divided by areas deemed “safe” and “unsafe,” and where the secret places -- a teacher’s office, perhaps, or a lab room or a janitor’s closet or a locker room shower stall -- serve as darkened dens where bad things happen and a lifetime of trauma and nightmares begins.  

Alarming numbers

In a 2004 survey conducted by the U.S. Education Department, it said that one-in-10 students will be sexually abused by a teacher during their years in school.

In 2015, Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation (SESAME), an organization that serves as a national voice for prevention of abuse by educators and other school employees, completed a study revealing that nearly 7 percent of children in the 8th through 11th grade who were surveyed reported having had sexual contact from an adult – most often a teacher or a coach. The statistic increased to 10 percent when it came to being shown pornography or being subjected to sexually explicit language or exhibitionism.

Perhaps the most catastrophic result of this increase is that while several states have passed laws requiring school administrators, teachers and staff to alert authorities about suspicious activities among their peers, some educators are shirking that responsibility, choosing to keep quiet rather than interfere with the lives of their co-workers, or run the risk of giving their school a bad name.

Against the overwhelming evidence that points undoubtedly to the rise in sexual abuse of schoolchildren by teachers, there is a quiet hero working in our community. The Chester County Children’s Advocacy Center (CAC) coordinates the investigation, prosecution, and treatment of child abuse while at the same time providing services that lead to healing. It’s an “all-in” effort; the CAC’s multidisciplinary team is made up of representatives from law enforcement, the DAs Office, hospitals, schools and many other agencies.

The work of the CAC and the Chester County DAs Office notwithstanding, we are witnessing the sweep of a tidal wave that threatens to turn our hard-working and responsible teachers into enemies by mere proximity, and elementary, middle and high schools into minefields. It is time for every school district in southern Chester County to address this crisis head on – with no hesitation. It is this newspaper’s recommendation that each school district:

·  Create a comprehensive sexual misconduct policy that is equally available for students, parents, employees and others affected by sexual misconduct to find information regarding the district’s rules and procedures, including the rights of students and the obligations of the district and its employees.

·  Provide training on the policy for all employees, school board members, students and local law enforcement representatives.

·  Establish procedures for regularly reviewing, evaluating and updating the policy. Review the desired outcome for each stakeholder to determine how success is defined and measured. By identifying outcomes that can be monitored jointly, there can be a clear way of demonstrating progress.

·  Create opportunities that provide counseling, advocacy, health, mental health and other support for victims of sexual misconduct.

·  Open up dialogue between school districts in order to share both the strengths and needs of each district’s policy, and create task forces made up of the entire community who are emboldened to act on behalf of change.

Luis Morales’ preliminary hearing was scheduled for Sept. 28; therefore, this newspaper does not yet know his projected sentence or the fate of where his crimes will take him. Yet, our focus here is not on Morales, nor is it trained on the hollowed and ashen faces of teachers whose photographs regularly appear in our newspapers, on our television screens and on our social media. Each of them deserves the punishment they deserve.

Rather, our attention remains on their victims, whose stories too often remain burrowed in the horrible silence of a memory repeated endlessly, and whose faces we often never see.