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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- State education officials say sexual misconduct by teachers is the No. 1 reason Utah educators are forced to surrender their licenses.
Records shows Utah has nearly 20,000 licensed educators. Since 1992, the State Board of Education has suspended or revoked 313 teacher licenses -- 208 of them for sexual misconduct. That number excludes 10 cases still being investigated by the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission.
The behaviors range from inappropriate touching and downloading pornography on a school computer to full-blown molestation.
"I talk about it every chance I get, at trainings, lectures and an education law class I teach," said Carol Lear, the state's top education lawyer. "The whole cell phone thing, texting and social networking. The landscape has just become increasingly complicated and sophisticated."
In 2005, a survey by The Associated Press ranked Utah 16th in the nation for teacher sex offenses based on disciplinary records from 2001 to 2005 in 50 states and the District of Columbia. At that time, 52.7 percent of Utah teachers who lost their licenses surrendered them for sexual misconduct -- twice the national rate, the AP found.
Neither police nor education officials can say what accounts for Utah's disproportionate rate. Lear speculates it's because the state disciplines wrongdoers more rigorously than others.
All Utah teachers undergo a national criminal background check when hired and again every five years when licenses must be renewed. State rules require teachers to report suspected child abuse and "inappropriate" communication with students is forbidden. The state also has a zero tolerance policy for sex offenses, including those plea bargained to lesser charges or subject to a diversion agreement.
Lear is working on a computerized ethics test to be administered every time a teacher comes up for license renewal. She would also like to create a video of real-life scenarios that illustrate red, yellow and green light behaviors.
"Our professionals are working in high-pressure environments that can be very isolating. They spend all day with children with very little input from peers. My gosh, their relationships are with children," said Lear. "It's becoming more and more clear to me that we can pass all the rules and legislation, but if we're going to solve this problem it will be through training."
Victor Vieth, executive director of the National Child Protection Training Center in Winona, Minn., advocated prevention through training. Few teachers entering the profession are prepared to spot and report abuse, he notes.
"They're not attuned to behavioral clues in students and should be reminded each year of their duty to report hunches, said Vieth. "It's about making it harder for a sexual predator to operate."
School principals can help by voicing their expectations, shunning locker room talk and sexual jokes, said Vieth.
In Utah's Weber School District principals undergo annual ethics and sexual harassment training, which they're supposed to replicate at school, spokesman Nate Taggart said.
Lear said that's true in most of the state's large districts.
But, she adds, specialized training to help teachers protect children and avoid misplaced abuse allegations are "hit and miss."
Information from: The Salt Lake Tribune
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)