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Gazette Premium Content Rash of Pikes Peak region educators accused of sex crimes raises concerns

By Debbie Kelley Updated: March 9, 2014 at 7:45 am

In a span of two months, five school employees, all working in different Pikes Peak region districts, were arrested on suspicion of committing sex crimes against students. A local man hosting two foreign exchange students in his family's home also was taken into custody during that time on suspicion of touching the students in a sexual manner.

The rash of alleged bad behavior on the part of adults has left officials scratching their heads over the reason it's happening.

"It concerns me deeply. We need to make sure we're doing everything we can possibly do to keep the students in our classrooms safe," said Paul Lundeen, chairman of the Colorado State Board of Education.

But whether the incidents coming one after another is a fluke or a pendulum swinging from one direction to the other is as difficult to pinpoint as the cause because statistics aren't easy to come by.

The Colorado Department of Education doesn't compile or collect data on teachers accused of sexual improprieties with students, spokeswoman Megan McDermott said.

Same goes for the U.S. Department of Education.

The 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office doesn't track sex offenders by profession, spokeswoman Lee Richards said.

The Colorado Springs Police Department also doesn't break down sex crimes into a category of educators, spokeswoman Lt. Catherine Buckley said.

"We don't separate out teachers, or priests or anyone like that," she said.

Because juveniles are protected by law from their identity being revealed as victims, Buckley said, statistics are not specific when it comes to crimes against children.

School districts won't talk about such cases either because they constitute a personnel matter, which falls under confidentiality laws.

"The statistics tend to get aggregated to protect privacy," Lundeen said. "If the information becomes granular enough, then an issue that isn't a matter of public record might be discernible."

Licenses revoked

The Colorado State Board of Education, the overseer of educator licensing, works hard to get rid of the bad apples, Lundeen said.

"We are part of the enforcement process," he said, "and whenever there's any indication something is wrong or someone is behaving improperly, we want to do what we can to remove them from the classroom."

A small number fall into that category. Of the state's 48,000 licensed educators, the state board revoked, suspended, annulled or denied 80 licenses in 2013, Lundeen said.

Among the causes were felony convictions for child abuse, sexual exploitation, stalking, vehicular assault, forgery embezzlement and identity theft.

The state board does not separate out sex crimes from other disciplinary issues, but a Gazette examination of more than two years of board minutes gives a glimpse of some numbers.

In the final stage of disciplinary action, three licenses were revoked in 2013 for felony sexual exploitation of a child or attempted sexual exploitation. There also were a few indecent exposure cases that led to license revocations, including a teacher masturbating in a classroom while a 13-year-old watched.

License revocations due to sex crimes were higher in 2012. The board pulled four because of attempts to commit sexual assault on a child, five due to sexual assaults on a child and two for sexual exploitation. Several applications for licensure also were denied that year because of previous sex-related offenses.

The latest cases

The string of arrests in El Paso County started a few months ago. In mid-December, David Kindig, a 21-year-old Liberty High School assistant football coach for the 2013 fall season, allegedly groped a 15-year-old student and was charged with several offenses, including a pattern of sex crimes against a child by one in a position of trust. The school is in Academy School District 20, which serves northern Colorado Springs.

In early January, Roger French Jr., 31, a special education teacher at Mesa Ridge High School, south of the city in Widefield School District 3, confessed to police that he had sex on two occasions with one of his female students while she baby-sat in his home in Colorado Springs, according to court documents.

In late January, Fernando Ornelas, a 65-year-old choir and band teacher at Hanover Junior-Senior High School on the eastern plains, was arrested after a 13-year-old student told authorities he hugged her for too long, asked for a kiss, grabbed her by the hips and spanked her.

In early February, a Cheyenne Mountain High School math teacher, in Cheyenne Mountain School District 12, was arrested on suspicion of kissing and touching a female sophomore. Mark Moore, 31, also had worked as a football and basketball coach at the school.

A few weeks later, in mid-February, a Coronado High School education assistant was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a student. Benjamin Wilkerson, 26, also was the assistant girls' basketball coach at Coronado, which is in Colorado Springs School District 11.

Although not a school district employee, another case surfaced in mid-January. John Ingersoll, 68, was arrested on suspicion of sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust, after two foreign exchange students living in his home told police he touched them in a sexual way.

Chasing the numbers

It's hard to say if these occurrences indicate an uptick.

Sgt. Lisa Cintron, who supervises high school resource officers in the Gold Hill Division of the Colorado Springs Police Department, defines local sex crimes against students as "an infrequent occurrence."

"It's not on our daily radar," she said. "There's no way to identify why we'd have more at this moment."

Nonetheless, Cintron said, "One is a lot. Any more is too many."

The Police Department categorizes crimes against children with crimes against elders and runaways. In 2013, the unit's 10 detectives investigated 530 suspected crimes against children, said Sgt. Mark Chacon, a unit supervisor.

Of those, 108 resulted in arrests, 94 were proved unfounded and 207 remain open investigations. The remainder of the cases were closed or cleared.

The categories are broad; the largest number of cases - 131 - were for "forcible fondling." There were 80 cases of "forcible rape," 29 cases of "sexual assault with an object" and two cases of "statutory rape."

But there is no breakdown of perpetrators or victims, so no indication of how many of those involved educators and students.

Chacon said there's no typical profile of someone who behaves inappropriately with students.

"It's males, females, young, old," he said.

Sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust - a common charge - can refer to teachers, clergy, psychiatrists, baby sitters, relatives, parents and others considered "in a position of trust" in a child's life.

The number of recent events might have something to do with improved reporting methods and use of social media, Cintron said, which have "enhanced the ability of victims, families and friends to make those kinds of reports."

"The shame is when it's not reported, when something is not said," she said.

Stationing school resource officers, who are police officers or sheriff's deputies, at local schools also helps develop relationships between law enforcement and students, parents and staff, which can encourage better communication, she said.

"The SRO is a sounding board for student, staff and parents, and they're also very attuned to this issue, which is why it's not unheard of for the SRO to identify a potential problem before it gets worse or manifests," Cintron said.

Police stay involved with victims throughout a case, Chacon said, and make sure victims and their families are aware of the assistance available to help them heal.

"It's a difficult topic," Buckley said.

The school environment today is such that it's tough to perpetrate a sex crime on a student, law enforcement officials say.

"They have extensive background checks, even on volunteers, that include various databases, and there's a lot of peer interaction," Buckley said.

Background checks for school employees are standardized statewide, Lundeen said, when an educator applies for an original license, renewal or change. And school districts are required to provide training to employees on what constitutes inappropriate and unethical behavior.

"Know that this is something the Police Department takes very seriously, and if people come forward, we'll investigate it and prove or disprove the allegations," Buckley said.

Keeping kids safe

It's not that such cases haven't happened in the area before.

Another Liberty High School athletic coach, Travis Clark, 32, is facing an April trial after he was arrested in 2012 on allegations that he and an 18-year-old student exchanged oral sex at school.

A Falcon School District 49 lunch lady pleaded guilty to serving alcohol to minors at parties at her home and in December got probation for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Tonya Harris, 34, wasn't punished for having sexual relations with a 17-year-old because it was deemed consensual and her job didn't classify her as "one in a position of trust."

A school board member in Ellicott was involved in another high-profile case.

Stefanie Dickinson, 38, was accused of seducing her children's 17-year-old baby sitter and sending sexually explicit text messages to a 14-year-old. She was sentenced to probation and other conditions in October 2012.

Misdemeanors or a breach of ethics also can be career-ending, such as these cases the Colorado State Board of Education heard last year: abusing alcohol while on school grounds, forging academic qualifications and failing to properly and timely perform a suicide-risk assessment.

"It demonstrates the level of seriousness that the state board takes on anything that might potentially create a risk situation for a student," Lundeen said.

To Lundeen, who lives in Monument and represents the 5th Congressional District on the state board, the number of recent sex-related incidents seems high.

"It's alarming," he said. "I'm aghast when it happens once, so I'm surprised on a monthly basis that these cases come up. It's reprehensible and repulsive. We know it's going on, and we're doing everything we can to keep the wolves out of the sheepskin."

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