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School officials often dismiss or ignore signs of sexual abuse

SACRAMENTO (AP) — Jason Abhyankar was a charming, charismatic presence when he arrived at Village View Elementary School in Huntington Beach in 1997.

The fourth-grade teacher embraced innovative learning approaches and was soon being invited to socialize with enamored parents.

Single mothers embraced him as a role model for their sons.

Yet Abhyankar also was a classic pedophile, using his natural charm to groom his victims by ingratiating himself with their families. He rewarded children with praise and affection before sexually assaulting them.

He eventually was caught, and in 2002 was sentenced to 24 years in state prison after being convicted of nine felony child molestation counts.

Yet in the years leading up to his arrest, Abhyankar's affections for young children did not go unnoticed. As in other cases where teachers abused their students, teachers and administrators suspected trouble but failed to notify police.

At Village View, some of Abhyankar's fellow teachers and even a school board member reported to administrators that he spent a lot of time alone with young boys, sometimes inside his locked classroom. He also gave rides to boys in his car, often alone with them.

At one point, an aide was even placed in Abhyankar's classroom and told not to let the teacher out of her sight.

School principal Kristi Hickman threatened to fire him after parents complained about his behavior. But Abhyankar responded with his own threat of a lawsuit for character defamation, and Hickman balked.

She wrote him a glowing recommendation letter in exchange for his resignation.

That letter and a follow-up reference by phone allowed Abhyankar to land another teaching job at Portola Hills Elementary in Trabuco Canyon, where a 9-year-old boy eventually reported being molested.

In all, six boys came forward to say they were molested by Abhyankar during his teaching career.

The children's parents won a $6.8 million settlement, mostly from the Ocean View Unified School District, for negligence in failing to protect the students in its care.

"This was an egregious example of a school looking out more for its administration than its students," said Los Angeles attorney David Ring, who represented the boys' families in the civil lawsuit.

Abhyankar's case is but one example of a disturbing undercurrent to cases of sexual abuse of students by teachers or administrators.

A seven-month Associated Press investigation of sexual abuse by California educators revealed that in many instances other school employees suspected or were aware of the abuse but failed to notify law enforcement.

Cases such as Abhyankar's are referred to as "passing the trash," said Ring, who over the last decade has filed about 100 lawsuits against California school districts accused of ignoring sexual abuse of students.

"You've got an unfit employee, you want to get rid of him, but you want to do it cleanly, quickly and efficiently. And what you do is you cut a deal with the employee," Ring said. "But guess what? Someone else is going to hire him because they're not getting all the information they need."

Hickman, Abhyankar's principal at Village View, was not criminally charged and remains an elementary school principal in the district. An attorney for the school district said he was prohibited from releasing any personnel information about whether she was punished.

Hickman did not return a telephone message left for her at Star View School in Midway City.

Corazon Rodil did lose her administrative credential after she was charged with failing to report allegations of child abuse.

The Santa Clara County district attorney's office said Rodil had reports as early as November 1999 that a popular fifth-grade teacher, Mario Duarte, was inappropriately touching girls in his class but decided after interviewing the 10- and 11-year-olds that their claims were not credible.

Rodil also ignored long-standing rumors about the teacher's conduct, according to prosecutors. Eventually, another teacher reported the allegations after overhearing a group of girls talking about them, and the district launched an investigation.

Duarte pleaded guilty in January 2001 to charges of sexually molesting five girls over a two-year period and was sentenced to 19 years in prison. The charges against Rodil were dropped because the statute of limitations had expired.

Despite losing her administrative credential, she retains a valid teaching license.

Sometimes, accused teachers leave their school districts or move out of state after suspicions arise about their behavior but officials fail to report what they know to police. That makes it even more difficult for future employers and law enforcement agencies to trace their history.

In 2000, Jonathan Lien resigned as a substitute teacher in the San Bernardino City Unified School District after officials received a complaint that he had sexually harassed a child there.

They did not report the allegations, however, and Lien moved on to work as a substitute teacher in several San Leandro schools.

There, he was banned from working in two separate elementary schools after he was accused of touching students inappropriately but remained on the district's roster of substitute teachers.

Eventually, he was charged with nine misdemeanor counts of child molestation, charges related to an art class during which he tickled, massaged, rubbed and hugged girls, according to prosecutors.

The state revoked his teaching license in December 2002 after he was convicted of misdemeanor molestation and ordered to register as a sex offender, according to records from the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

The San Leandro Unified School District also tightened its policies on substitute teachers in response to the Lien case.

He was allowed to get that far only after a series of school officials in at least four states looked the other way.

Complaints that Lien had tickled students surfaced while he was a reserve teacher in Minneapolis, Minn., where he had worked since 1991.

San Leandro police said he also worked in Lawrence, Kan., and taught in Chicago Public Schools immediately before moving to California.

But even during the police investigation in San Leandro, officials in Illinois were unable to provide much information beyond verifying Lien's teaching permit, despite clear problems with his past conduct, recalled San Leandro Police Lt. Robert Dekas, who led the investigation into Lien in 2002.

"In each of the districts, I wasn't able to obtain any real concrete information, other than he kept moving from district to district. I think it was behavior that did not rise to a criminal investigation, but it was inappropriate behavior," Dekas said.

In Chicago, he said, "There were issues. They wouldn't tell me what those issues were, but he was not allowed to teach in their district."

The state agency that licenses teachers in Illinois has no public record of action against him there.

Lien also was not listed on a national registry of teachers who have had their licenses suspended or revoked, used by school districts to assess potential employees, Dekas said.

He could not determine whether any teacher or administrator at any of Lien's previous stops had ever reported inappropriate behavior to police. Officials in those school districts told Dekas that the teacher's personnel files were private and could not be released, even to a law enforcement official investigating a potential crime.

Police and prosecutors who have investigated cases of teacher sexual abuse say that in typical cases administrators are not necessarily willfully negligent. Rather, they ignore warning signs that in hindsight appear glaring.

In the case of Lorna Korber, an English teacher in the Los Angeles suburb of Claremont, someone even sent a letter to her principal warning that the peer counseling leader was suspected of having an inappropriate relationship with a student she mentored.

The letter was ignored. Police later retrieved it from a filing cabinet in the school office, said Ring, the attorney who represented 17-year-old female victim in the case.

Korber later pleaded guilty to two counts of molesting the girl, as well as giving her marijuana, and was sentenced to five years probation.

"They're scared of the teachers' union, scared to investigate, scared of the teacher," Ring said of administrators who fail to take action.

——— On the Net: To search for a teacher's credential, go to: https://teachercred.ctc.ca.gov/teachers/index.jsp AP-WS-10-18-07 1552EDT

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