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Missouri victim fights sexual abuse by teachers

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The man who first coaxed love from Amy Hestir's heart treated her with kindness and affection. He showered the seventh-grader with praise and gifts. He made her feel special.

What started as a schoolgirl crush evolved into a sexual relationship between a student and teacher.

For years, she never revealed the secret relationship that spanned her middle-school life. She protected him even as she struggled with the emotional fallout.

But in adulthood, Hestir, now Amy Surdin, finally recognized the truth: He was a criminal, and she was his victim.

"I didn't understand how manipulated I was," she said.

She also didn't understand how disturbingly common her experience was. Since going public, Surdin has heard many others tell her, "Me, too."

"It breaks my heart," she said.

Last year in the Kansas City area, authorities accused four teachers of sex crimes involving students. That includes a Eudora, Kan., teacher accused of misbehavior in Wichita, where he previously taught. A fifth area teacher, charged in 2011, pleaded guilty and was sentenced in the summer.

In the most recent case, authorities charged a William Chrisman High School band teacher in November with enticement of a child and second-degree child molestation.

Surdin, now a Columbia, Mo., resident, was 12 and living in Moberly, Mo., when a popular young teacher began "courting her," she said.

"I was a shy, awkward kid," she said.

She was flattered by the attention of an adult who told her he loved her and convinced her that having sex was what people in love do.

"I thought it was all about love," she said. "The Cinderella movie played in my head."

He also told her that their relationship must be a secret.

"He said it would hurt my family if anybody found out," she recalled. "It was a way to control and manipulate me."

Her abuser's actions are a textbook example of such situations, according to researchers who have studied teacher misconduct with students.

Common themes

A comprehensive review of studies published by the U.S. Department of Education identified many common themes: teachers who are popular and well-regarded professionally; students who may come from troubled homes or are marginal students; physical contact comes in gradual, escalated stages; students are threatened or coerced into keeping the relationship secret; and children often are disbelieved when they tell someone.

"Because of the power differential, the reputation difference between the educator and the child, or the mindset that children are untruthful, many reports by children are ignored or given minimal attention," according to the Department of Education report.

Many child victims suffer myriad emotional and psychological problems, said Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and one of the study's authors.

They are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and suffer from depression. They tend to have difficulty forming intimate relationships later in life, she said.

Surdin certainly can attest to that.

As shame and guilt consumed her, her grades suffered. She grew depressed and attempted suicide.

Finally, when she was almost 21, she had an emotional breakdown and ended up in a hospital. There she told a counselor her long-kept secret.

"That was the first adult I ever told," she said.

Because of the passage of time, the county prosecutor did not file charges.

That hasn't prevented Surdin from speaking out about the issue, and last year the Missouri General Assembly put her name on a new law that extended the statute of limitations to 30 years after a child victim turns 18. The previous limit was 10 years.

The Amy Hestir Student Protection Act also requires school districts to provide information about former employees to other school districts if the employees have been fired or resigned because of substantiated sexual misconduct allegations.

Teachers who engage in sexual conduct with students are doing more than committing statutory rape, Surdin said. They are abusing the power their position gives them over their students.

Many states have adopted laws that recognize that special relationship, regardless of the student's age, Shakeshaft said.

Kansas has such a law that criminalizes sexual contact between a teacher and student from the same school even if the student has reached the legal age of consent, which is 16 in Kansas.

And recently the state's Court of Appeals rejected a constitutional challenge to the law brought by a former Wichita teacher who had a consensual sexual relationship with an 18-year-old student. The teacher argued that the law violated his constitutional rights of privacy to engage in sexual conduct with another consenting adult in the privacy of his own home.

In its ruling, the court found the law recognizes "the disparity of power inherent in the teacher/student relationship."

The court noted that teachers are given a great deal of trust and have "constant access to students, often in an unsupervised context."

Surdin said she certainly didn't have the maturity level to get embroiled in that kind of situation, though, like many teens, she thought she did.

"At 13 kids cannot handle an adult relationship," she said. "They aren't equipped to make the best choices for themselves."

She said she has made her story public to encourage kids caught in such situations to seek help from a trusted adult. She also wants parents to ask more questions if they have concerns involving their child.

Schools must do a better job of educating employees about how to recognize the signs and patterns of abuse and report concerns, Shakeshaft said.

"There is very little of that kind of education across the country," she said. "Most abuse could be stopped if other teachers knew what to look for."


Information from: The Kansas City Star, http://www.kcstar.com


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