A 12-year-old Mexican girl sat grimly in front of a courtroom last week and accused a 53-year-old Oxnard man of repeatedly molesting her for two years, beginning in 1986.
Speaking through a Spanish translator, she told a Superior Court judge how Roger William Brown had convinced her mother to let her move with him to Ventura County, where in a succession of houses he allegedly persuaded her to share his bed, his shower and her body with him.
The girl, wearing thick glasses and a ponytail, was sometimes at a loss for words, but a single, common expression captured the pathos of the situation.
She repeatedly referred to Brown as " el maestro " in a preliminary hearing on Friday.
Brown, a blond tired-looking man, had been her teacher. On the verge of his second trial, he is charged with ten counts of molestation. His first trial ended in a hung jury last April.
While nobody is accusing the Oxnard School District of wrongdoing in the case, it still chilled parents throughout the county, and raised a question that has perplexed school districts and concerned parents across the U.S.
To what lengths can and should school districts go to screen applicants for teaching positions?
The Oxnard elementary school district, whose officials say they were shocked when the accusation surfaced a year ago, takes all the steps that are standard in public education.
Officials ask for at least four recommendations. Recognizing that employers can face lawsuits by committing negative information about former employees to writing, they also conduct telephone interviews with references, said Supt. Norm Brekke.
The district--like others statewide--relies on one of the country's strictest licensing organizations, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, which requires every applicant for a teaching credential to be fingerprinted so that the FBI and the state Department of Justice can check for past convictions.
The commission denies credentials, which are required for teaching jobs in California's public schools, to applicants with a history of convictions for sex and drug crimes, said Paul Longo, the commission's attorney.
Credentialed teachers who are found guilty of such crimes--either in courts or special hearings conducted by the commission--lose their licenses and their names appear on an advisory sent to every teachers' licensing organization in the country, Longo said.
Sex offenders who nonetheless find their way into the classroom should be further hindered from committing crimes by courses that teach children to notify authorities when they receive "a bad touch," school officials said. In the Oxnard district, the lessons are taught in conjunction with health classes early in the primary grades, Brekke said.
Yet such incidents occur.
In California alone, 30 teachers were convicted of sexual misconduct last year, according to CTC figures.
While family members or close family friends still account for about 65% of molestation cases, school personnel--janitors, bus drivers and teachers--are responsible for 10% of the remaining cases, said Joan McKenna, director of Society's League Against Molestation in New Jersey.
She said that the authority bestowed on teachers, whom parents urge their children to obey, and their access to children make the profession appealing to sex offenders.
"They're with the children more than Mom and Dad," she said.
California administrators blame lax standards in other states for enabling teachers convicted of crimes in one state to find teaching jobs in other states.
The National Assn. of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, which is trying to tighten screening procedures nationwide by establishing a clearinghouse of information on teachers whose credentials have been revoked, recently found an employed teacher who had been convicted of sex crimes in nine states.
"It's easy to leave out information about convictions in another state and then slip into the system elsewhere," said Don Megill, a NASTEC director.
No Ironclad Procedures
Licensing organizations in some states still do not have ironclad procedures for revoking credentials, so the potential exists for teachers to be convicted of sex crimes without being detected by the organization, he said.
Only two states besides California--Nevada and Florida--submit credentialing applicants to fingerprinting, which means that applicants in 47 states can omit convictions, said Richard Mastain, CTC executive secretary.
And some applicants do, even in the most vigilant states. In a study conducted two years ago, Florida's State Department of Education found that 47 of 1,635 applicants failed to mention prior convictions for sexual misconduct.