Lawmakers: Alaska laws protect school children from predators

By Steve Quinn
Juneau, Alaska (AP) 10-07

Alaska has famously ranked among the top states in the nation for the last three decades when it comes to rape and sexual assault statistics.

That’s why officials were pleasantly surprised to find Alaska was ahead of the national average when it comes to prosecuting offenders when like abuse happened in the state’s schools.

A state-by-state tally by The Associated Press found 26 percent of educator misconduct cases from 2001 through 2005 were punished for sexual behavior.

In Alaska, that figure for the same period was about 29 percent, or slightly more than two cases yearly throughout the state’s 500 schools.

Alaska’s figures were gathered as part of a seven-month investigation in which AP reporters sought records on teacher discipline in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Across the country, sexual misconduct allegations led states to take action against the licenses of 2,570 educators from 2001 through 2005. That figure includes licenses that were revoked, denied and surrendered.

Young people were victims in at least 69 percent of the cases, and the large majority of those were students.

Nine out of 10 of those abusive educators were male. And at least 446 of the abusive teachers had multiple victims.

There are about 3 million public school teachers in the United States.

Alaska victims advocates and lawmakers say one case is always too many, but a watershed case from the 1980s may have helped keep that number from being higher and a turning point to making schools safer.

“If we expect them to be around our kids and entrust them with our kids, then we should hold them to a higher standard than an everyday person,” state Rep. Bob Roses said. “The laws have done that.”

Roses and other lawmakers say the state has among the strongest sets of laws and ethics codes nationally for keeping out or kicking out those who should not be working with children and teens.

The laws are even strong enough for one state agency, the Professional Teaching Practices Commission, to revoke a license without a criminal conviction.

Roses, who taught math in Anchorage schools for 20 years, said he believes Alaska’s certification rules have grown to be among the strictest nationally.

“When you go to different conferences, and when you read journals and periodicals, you realize we hold everybody to a pretty high standard,” said Roses, an Anchorage Republican.

Sexual-related offenses in these cases included inappropriate touching, rape, improper e-mails and child pornography.

The law was changed after charges were dropped against an Anchorage teacher accused of having sex with an underage student. The charges were dismissed because the age of consent was 16 with no qualifying factors.

That changed when state lawmakers made it a felony for someone in a position of authority, say a teacher, to have sex with a minor even if that person is of legal consenting age.

Sanna Green, who served as chair of the Professional Teaching Practices Commission, said the new law did not necessarily give the commission new licensing powers, but it still provided additional legal grounds for its code of ethics.

“I had not felt constrained before because we could sanction an educator when a jury would not find them guilty, but the law clarified everything for us,” she said.

“It helped us change the code of ethics to include sexual relations,” she said. “We were able to base it on the legal definition.”

Lawmakers, victims’ advocates and state licensing administrators say subsequent laws, the advent of national databases used to review a teacher’s history and detailed 12-page license application have also helped.

The state’s application for a certification wastes no time in delving into an applicant’s criminal history. On the first page it asks about convictions, pending suspensions or revocations, and any outstanding criminal charges, including impaired driving.

But if a complaint against a certified teacher warrants an investigation, school districts routinely wait until law enforcement completes its work.

The misconduct often starts as an abuse of an authoritative figure, victims advocates say.

Young children and teens are warned about not trusting strangers, but they also need to be taught to say no to those whom they trust.

“We try to tell children that it’s not always a stranger, but it could be someone you know or your parents know,” said Nancy Haag, executive director of the Anchorage-based victims support organization, Standing Together Against Rape.

“There are good secrets and there are bad secrets, and kids don’t need to keep those bad secrets,” she said. “They need to know if something bad happens, to tell someone and keep telling someone until someone listens.”

In Anchorage, the state’s largest school district, teachers must go through an “adult-student boundary training,” said Margo Bellamy, the district’s director for equal opportunity compliance.

“The training is consistent and ongoing,” Bellamy said. “They need to know what the obligations are to the student, the public and to us,” Bellamy said. “If there’s a problem, it won’t be because they didn’t know or didn’t have the information.”

Despite that success, Alaska does not fare well when it comes to statistics outside the schools.

A 2007 Amnesty International report found that American Indians and Alaska Natives are 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women of other ethnic groups in the U.S.

In Alaska, there is little or no law enforcement presence in dozens of Native communities that lie far from any road system. Most villages can be reached only by air or sometimes boat or snowmobile, and dangerous winter weather can leave crime victims marooned for days before state troopers arrive.

There is no easy way to escape. Many victims fly hundreds of miles from home to safe houses and treatment centers in the cities.

But urban areas are no safer. In Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, Alaska Natives were 9.7 times more likely to be raped or sexually molested than the rest of the population, the report said.