EDITOR'S NOTE — In this installment of a three-day series on sexual misconduct by teachers in American schools, the AP examines the devastating impact one abusive educator has had on a family and a community.
BERWYN, Ill. — They've learned to watch their older daughter for any sign that something's wrong.
She cuts her long, blonde hair and dyes it jet black. And they worry.
Her father picks up a book she's been reading, "The Road" by Cormac McCarthy, and skims it for clues.
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He notices a highlighted passage: "You forget some things, don't you," it reads. "Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget."
Her parents can relate. There's a lot they'd like to forget, too — especially since the day nearly three years ago when their then 15-year-old daughter told them her elementary school band teacher had molested her and other girls.
The teacher, Robert Sperlik Jr., pleaded guilty last year to sexual abuse and kidnapping of more than 20 girls, some as young as 9. Among other things, he told prosecutors that he put rags in the girls' mouths, taped them shut and also bound their hands and feet with duct tape and rope for his own sexual stimulation.
He pretended it was a game, gave the girls candy and told them not to tell.
And for a long time, none of them did.
An extensive Associated Press investigation found that stories like these are all too common. AP reporters in every state and the District of Columbia identified 2,570 teachers who were punished for sexual misconduct from 2001 to 2005 alone, for actions that ranged from fondling to viewing child pornography to rape.
Though experts who deal with sexual abuse say victims tell the truth more often than not, the ordeal is often worsened when the community around them is drawn in and people take sides. Often, victims and their families face uncooperative administrators, disbelieving neighbors and an agonizing legal journey.
This family in Berwyn, a suburb west of Chicago, understands the emotional toll.
"It's a silent epidemic is what it is," the girl's father says. "People are protecting people who aren't worth protecting. I hope our daughters will have that instilled in them, too — that you report what you know."
The couple — a telecommunications technician and a stay-at-home mom — spoke on the condition that they and their daughter not be identified, so she can try to move on from the nightmare that began in the late 1990s.
But they want to share their story to encourage anyone being abused by an educator to come forward. They also hope school officials will do more to get abusive teachers out of classrooms.
"I thought my children were safest in school," the girl's mother says. "I don't trust anybody now."
Her daughter was a fourth-grader at Pershing Elementary School when Sperlik began teaching her how to play the clarinet.
She liked him. He said nice things about her and played funny games during class, including letting them draw lips on duct tape and put it on their mouths.
Eventually, though, she and two of her friends started to feel uncomfortable with what they described as increasingly creepy behavior.
After attending a school seminar about inappropriate touching in 2001, they wrote a note to the woman who spoke to them.
He "rubs our leg sometimes, rubs our back to feel for a bra," the girl — then age 11 — wrote for herself and her friends. "He comments (to) me about my hair and how nice it looks when it's down, comments to (another female student) on how she dresses and that she should be a model."
"We are afraid to tell our parents," they continued in the note, which made its way to Karen Grindle, the principal at Pershing.
The girls thought it was enough to flag an adult's attention without having to be too explicit.
Grindle, according to court documents, spoke to the children individually and to some of their parents — though she didn't show the letter to the parents. She told them that their daughters felt uncomfortable with the band teacher — that she had spoken to Sperlik, and he explained that he was only correcting their posture and tapping them on the knee to help them keep a beat.
The parents felt reassured.
Later in court, however, the girls claimed they had privately told Grindle that Sperlik touched them in their groin area. Grindle insisted that never happened.
Given her findings, she made no report to the authorities, but did tell Sperlik not to touch his students for any reason.
Grindle — who was later cleared of criminal charges for not reporting Sperlik — did not respond to a request for an interview.
Nor did Sperlik, by way of his attorney.
William Jordan, the district's superintendent at the time of the abuse, also said he could not comment, citing the victims' civil lawsuit against him, other school officials and Sperlik.
"It's important to look at what the school failed to do," says Mark Loevy-Reyes, a Chicago attorney who represents some of the families, including the one profiled in this story. "I think it's easy for school districts to turn a blind eye to it, unless they know they can be held accountable."
When her parents initially asked their daughter in 2001 to tell them what happened, she didn't want to talk about it. So they stopped asking.
Four years later she overheard a conversation her mom was having with her younger sister, an eighth-grader whose neighbor friend had been dancing provocatively in front of adults.
Her mother explained that it wasn't appropriate. And when the younger daughter protested the lecture, her older sister had to say something.
"You know what, you need to listen to Mom because of what happened to me with that weirdo band teacher," the elder daughter said, opening the door to her long-kept secret.
It was the first time her mother heard anything about duct tape.
"This is not your fault," her mom said, as tears streamed down both of their faces. "I never knew. I didn't know."
The family went to police and, as more young women came forward, they found evidence of a long-standing pattern of abuse.
Some in the community didn't want to believe it.
To them, Sperlik was an awkward, but generally well-liked bachelor and accomplished drummer who often related to his students better than other adults.
Some parents knew that he and older band students duct taped one another. But they thought it was a prank.
"He's obviously disturbed. Now I could see that these weren't innocent (duct) taping things. I could see that he was getting sexual gratification out of that, which is terrible and should not have been allowed," says Michelle Nafziger, a mother who went to high school with Sperlik — and whose five children also had him for band. "But I don't know — it left us all feeling really weird."
Dominic Tarullo, a parent whose four children had Sperlik for band, thinks Berwyn's history of political corruption somehow played a role in getting Sperlik to accept a 20-year plea deal without a fight.
"I just cannot imagine that he was abusing kids," he says.
He's not alone.
Immediately after news of Sperlik's arrest hit in January 2005, people began questioning the girls' motives: Why didn't they come forward sooner? Were they really telling the truth? Some think their parents simply want money from a lawsuit.
It was almost too much for the girl, who never anticipated such harsh public scrutiny.
For a time, she was cutting herself on her arms and ankles — a ritual that is often associated with victims of sexual abuse. Her parents also had her admitted to a psychiatric hospital after she took sleeping pills last year.
"I just can't take it anymore," she wrote in a note to her parents.
After she came home, they found a counselor who specializes in sexual abuse.
It's been helping, they say. And in the spring, their daughter graduated from a private high school and is starting college in central Illinois and a new chapter away from her troubles in Berwyn.
She's also let her hair grow out and no longer dyes it black.
For the first time in a long time, her parents are hopeful — though nagging guilt and anger persist.
Her mother still has dreams about going to the school to confront the principal about why she didn't do more.
Her father thinks about the day his daughter marries and has kids of her own — how he'll have to resist the urge to park outside her house to watch over them.
"Our kids were like babies still. That's what makes it so hard because they were so innocent," he says.
He rubs his face, as his eyes well up.
"All these kids — I feel sorry for all of them, not just my own.
"We're not the only ones suffering in this. There's a lot of people suffering in this."