CINCINNATI — Dianna Sheely was shocked last year when she heard that a teacher at Colerain High, the same district where her children go to school, was arrested for having sexual contact with a student.
Sheely felt let down. The head of the Northwest High booster club wondered how it could happen and what administrators at the Northwest Local School District – which includes Colerain and Northwest high schools – would do about it.
Then it happened again, this time at Northwest High where her children attend.
And then again.
Three times in the same school district, all within a year.
"It made me mad and it made me sad," Sheely said.
"As parents, we put our trust in these teachers and we expect them to respect our students."
Educators have been charged with having sexual contact with students four times in the last year in Hamilton County and at least nine times in the Cincinnati area since 2010."We've got some teachers in this country who have lost their minds," said Terry Abbott, the chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Education in 2001 and former spokesman for the country's seventh-largest school district in Houston. He now owns a public relations firm that tracks cases of educators accused or convicted of sexual contact with students.
While Abbott admits his research isn't exact — it's based on media accounts of such cases — he has found 460 such cases in the U.S. from Jan. 1 through Aug. 10. Of those, almost two-thirds of the teachers were male; the average age of the accused teacher was 35.
"I think we're looking at a national epidemic," Abbott added.
Critics suggest that as many as one in 10 U.S. public school students — or about 4.5 million children — are involved in some kind of inappropriate teacher-student relationship.
But it's not easy to identify — accusations involve everything from physical contact to inappropriate comments or looks — and can have a crippling effect not only on those involved but on the student body and their parents and educators.
"It's devastating to the rest of our students," said Dan Unger, president of the Northwest Local School District Board of Education. Two of the three teachers from his district have already been convicted and this year imprisoned. The third case is pending.
"When (the other students) think about the accomplishments of the class of 2014, they'll think about that. This is what they will remember," Unger said.
It's become easier in a digital world where smart phones can dominate conversation, for teachers and students to communicate. That's good when it's used to discuss school work. But sometimes it can turn criminal.
"The biggest reason this occurs now is social media," Abbott said.
A text, Facebook post, Instagram or Snapchat message can give teachers and students greater access to each other than ever before. All three of the Northwest Local School educators relied heavily on Snapchat, Facebook and text messages to communicate with the victimized students.
"It seems to be when the conversation goes private like that, the teacher says and does outrageous and outlandish things they'd never say in person," Abbott said.
Those private contacts allow predatory educators to exploit students, enhancing the control teachers have over their students. Students want to be liked by or get attention from the educator.
"In common terms, (students) don't necessarily know better," said Jeffrey Strawn, a physician and assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati.
While some students believe themselves to be willing participants, most don't realize how inappropriate the relationship has become until it's too late.
Once discovered, however, the relationship – that may have started as a typical teen crush on a teacher – creates immediate distrust on the part of the district's parents. "If you're a parent, you say, 'If they allow this to happen to this kid, will they allow it to happen to mine?' " Charole Shakeshaft said.
Shakeshaft is a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Leadership, where she teaches students to become school administrators, and a national expert on the issue. She wrote the last major study on it in 2004.
Teachers are reluctant to talk about the cases.
Neither the Ohio Education Association, representing 121,000 Ohio teachers and support staff, nor the Kentucky Education Association, representing 42,000 Kentucky teachers and staff, answered questions for this story, although each issued a statement noting they have no tolerance for teachers having sexual contact with students.
Andrew Jackson, superintendent of Northwest Local School District, also declined to comment as did members of the Northwest PTA leadership contacted by The Enquirer.
But it helps to "out" the offending educators and ensure their history follows them to other jobs, say experts. It's often too easy for an offending teacher to be disciplined in one state only to move to a teaching position in another state where no one knows his or her history.
Making everyone aware of a teachers' disciplinary or criminal history, experts say, is key to addressing the problem.
The trend rivals the attention, over the last decade or so, given to allegations against the Catholic church of priests and other church officials involved in inappropriate relationships with children.
"They're prosecuting bishops, monsignors, cardinals for passing priests from parish to parish. This is no different," said Terri Miller, head of the Las Vegas-based Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation. SESAME is dedicated to addressing and halting the abuse, sexual and otherwise, of students.
Teachers' unions want to allow offending teachers to resign – or they press for confidentiality agreements that wipe clean offenders' teaching history to make them more employable. Miller calls the practice "pass the trash." That kind of behavior leaves students in danger and further stigmatizes the majority of teachers who don't deserve it, she said.
"It's created this massive pool of unknown, unindicted child molesters in our schools – until another child is abused," Miller said.
There is one clearinghouse in the country that tracks teachers' histories, including misconduct, but the information it gathers can only be used by school districts who want background information on a potential hire. The national Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification is a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit; while the information is available to schools, they don't have to use it. Many don't.
Miller believes legislation to prohibit such confidentiality agreements should be in place. She also pushes for more severe penalties against convicted educators. Both Unger and Abbott were shocked to learn that Julie Hautzenroeder, a Colerain teacher who resigned and then convicted of having sex with a student, was released after she served just six months of a two-year prison sentence.
It's those involved in the everyday environment, though, who need to do the most – teachers, parents, students and administrators – to solve the problem.
"Frankly, (administrators) need to scare the hell out of teachers, show them some of the cases, show them (school districts) are not going to put up with this," Abbott said.
If it isn't openly discussed, it will continue to happen, Shakeshaft insists. "The ways schools deal with it ranges from disappointing to outrageous," she said. "People are just keeping quiet, looking the other way, assuming everything will be OK. It's not OK."
The ultimate goal, Shakeshaft said, should always be to protect students. "Everybody seems worried about ruining the teacher's life. No one seems worried about ruining the student's life," she said.