Red Flags in the Classroom

Published June 27, 2023

In a recent report, the Defense of Freedom Institute’s Paul Zimmerman alleged a “systemic failure by federal, state, and local authorities to prevent sexual abuse of students in public schools.” The report, titled “Catching the Trash,” finds that federal, state, and local authorities have not done enough to ensure that students are protected from abuse during the school day.

According to the data compiled by DFI, “between 2010 and 2019, the number of complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) alleging sexual violence against K–12 schools more than tripled.” The most recent available data, collected in 2017–18, showed 13,799 “incidents of sexual violence” and 685 instances of “rape or attempted rape” across about 95,000 schools—an increase of 43 percent and 74 percent, respectively, from the 2015–16 data.

DFI finds that when public school employees are investigated for sexual abuse, many school districts are under no legal obligation to notify parents or even note the investigation in the employee’s personnel file. “This allows administrators to pawn off known abusers to different schools and districts in a phenomenon called ‘passing the trash,’” the report notes.

Collective bargaining agreements negotiated between teachers’ unions and school districts are a key contributor to the problem. They “often allow for scrubbing of personnel files,” observes Zimmerman, so that no record of abuse is left once an offender leaves the system. State legislators—many of whom depend on teachers’ union support—are notoriously lax in this area.

The DFI report is not the first to delve into the level of abuse in our schools. The problem is not new: a 2000 investigation by the Association of American University Women claimed that nearly 9.6 percent of students in grades eight through 11 were victims of sexual misconduct by school personnel, a figure that included both physical and verbal actions. Meantime, Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation, a nonprofit that works to stop childhood sexual abuse by teachers and other school employees, states that in 2015, about 3.5 million students between eighth and 11th grade—nearly 7 percent of those surveyed—divulged that they had experienced “physical sexual contact from an adult” (most often a teacher or coach). The type of physical contact ranged from “unwanted touching of their body, all the way up to sexual intercourse.” The statistic increases to about 4.5 million children (10 percent) when non-physical types of sexual misconduct are included, such as being shown pornography or being subjected to sexually explicit language.

The poster boy for sexual abuse and mismanagement is Mark Berndt, who did sickening things to children for years at Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles. After Berndt was busted in 2012, the Los Angeles Unified School District’s immediate remedy was to bar lessons involving the paraphernalia he employed. But Berndt had a track record of perversity going back to 1983, when he dropped his pants on a class trip to a museum, blaming it on “baggy shorts.” In 1992, several students claimed that he was masturbating in class, and another student claimed that he touched her inappropriately in the classroom. Then in 2010, investigators from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department came into possession of some of Berndt’s photos, which showed children gagged and bound, in horrifying situations.

Due to official apathy and incompetence, and union mandates that make it almost impossible to fire any teacher—no matter how perverse they are—the school district couldn’t get rid of Berndt without going through a lengthy appeals process costing over $300,000. So, when his crimes were exposed, Berndt gamed the system by accepting a $40,000 bribe and retired—but only after racking up another year of credit toward his pension. The ensuing lawsuits against L.A. Unified over Berndt alone cost the district some $200 million. When added to four other sexual-abuse cases in Los Angeles, the cost to the district was $300 million.

A more recent case of systemic failure involves the exploits of Santa Barbara high school teacher Matef Harmachis, a world-class pervert and a revolutionary Marxist. A few of Harmachis’s horrific activities include making anti-Semitic and sexually charged remarks to students. He also hugged a girl, told her to “rub her body all over his,” and said, “It’s okay if you come naked to class.” He told another girl, “Just because you’re good in bed doesn’t mean you can eat in class.”

Harmachis always avoided getting arrested or even losing his teaching position; instead, he was merely transferred from school to school. Things changed in 2017, however. According to a lawsuit, Harmachis repeatedly sexually harassed, groped, and assaulted a student at Santa Barbara High School. Harmachis’s harassment and abuse of the victim often allegedly took place in his classroom in full view of other students. Harmachis was criminally charged with battery of Jane OB Doe, pleading no contest, and received a criminal sentence. He had his teaching credential revoked by the state and was terminated by the district in March 2020. The Santa Barbara Unified School District had to fork over $950,000 in settlement costs with the victim. “I have never seen a case where a school district ignored so many red flags and allowed a dangerous individual to have unfettered access to vulnerable students,” said Morgan Stewart, Doe’s attorney.

The new report contains several, extensively detailed examples of recent cases. Many of us who are or have been involved with government-run schools eventually come to realize that public education is too often about the adults, not the kids. All too often, a small group of inept or debased (or debauched) adults—district administrators, state legislators, school board members, and union honchos—is in charge of an increasingly corrupt system that doesn’t protect innocent children, but instead supports or ignores the perverse adults who prey on them.