The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Public Education: Making It Easy for Sexual Predators to Find Their Prey

Posted on | April 17, 2011 | 18 Comments

When he was about 30 and teaching high-school band in Georgia in the late 1980s, Robert Hamberg divorced his wife, Jacque, and married 18-year-old Diane, his former student who had once baby-sat his children.

Well, OK. Creepy and unethical, perhaps, but not illegal. However, reasonable people might think that such behavior would have put an end to Hamberg’s teaching career. And reasonable people would be wrong:

Former Gulf Coast [Fla.] High School band director Robert Hamberg had sex with a 15-year-old student at school, at his home and in his car, a Collier County jury decided.
The jury deliberated almost 7 1/2 hours [Thursday] before finding Hamberg, 53, of Bonita Springs guilty on all eight counts of lewd and lascivious battery on the teenager from February to May 2009. . . .
For the girl, now 17, the verdict was affirmation she had been telling the truth about Hamberg, who was very popular at Gulf Coast High, where he developed the school’s successful band program . . .
“This is about justice. The victim was victimized from day one and called a liar. But the six people on the jury believed her,” Assistant State Attorney Mara Marzano said.
During closing arguments, Marzano told the jury Hamberg preyed on the young girl’s affections by telling her she was pretty and complimenting her on the way she played piano.
The girl gave explicit details of her encounters with Hamberg, including oral sex in school dressing rooms and at his house, fondling her genitals and attempted intercourse. . . .
During the trial, the judge allowed testimony that Hamberg married his current wife, who had been his band student at a Georgia high school and baby-sat his children. . . .
The alleged victim, Marzano said, “was a young girl with a school girl crush on her band director.”
Hamberg, said Marzano, exploited her infatuation. . . .
Hamberg “drew her in slowly like he was reeling in a fish,” the prosecutor said.
Hamberg gave her his personal email address and flirted with her on the Internet, Marzano said.
Then the relationship grew from hugs to kisses to repeated sex acts in school rooms, his home and in his car, Marzano said.

So the taxpayers of Collier County, Fla., basically provided Robert Hamberg with this opportunity to seek out a teenage victim, after he had already demonstrated an unethical sexual interest in his students by his actions in Georgia more than 20 years ago. And I guarantee you that nobody at Gulf Coast High informed parents that Hamberg’s wife was his former student.

Most people have no idea how much of this stuff goes on in schools because — despite federal mandatory-disclosure laws that require officials to report suspected abuse — public school administrators have a vested interest in keeping scandals like this quiet.

Years ago, when I was first a sports editor and later an education reporter for Georgia newspapers, I remember instances where coaches would mysteriously depart from their jobs at the end of the school year.

“What happened to Coach So-and-So?” I’d ask and, although school officials would say nothing (policy prohibits them from discussing personnel matters) I’d hear the real story  from parents, students or other coaches. Strictly off-the-record, of course.

In one instance that comes to mind, a successful high-school boys’ basketball coach was alleged to have had an affair with one of the students in his junior-high phys-ed class — a relationship that I was told had begun when the girl was only 12.

This scandal was rather widely known among people familiar with the school’s sports program, but no criminal charges were ever brought. Apparently, the parents of the girl didn’t want to put their daughter through the ordeal of a trial, and so there was this administrative decision just not to renew the coach’s contract. And while, as I say, lots of people had heard the real story, there was no way I could report such a thing in the newspaper based on hearsay.

This was just one example, and I suppose that most such teacher-student involvements never even come to the attention of school administrators because the student doesn’t complain and the furtive affair is never discovered. Not all the perpetrators are men, not all the victims are girls, and not all the victims think of themselves as victims.

You see this in the Robert Hamberg case: When he was in his late 20s or early 30s, Hamberg’s teenage student/babysitter/sweetheart was a quite willing victim, and evidently had no qualms about becoming the second Mrs. Hamberg. Twenty-odd years later, however — and who knows how many other such girls there had been in the intervening years? — Hamberg’s young crush wasn’t quite so willing, and so there was a criminal prosecution that brought to light what had previously been concealed from parents in this Florida community.

What always comes to mind when I hear of such cases is the fact that these teachers were government employees, whose access to their sexual conquests was provided at taxpayer expense. Leaving aside entirely the illegality of such actions, one is shocked at the unethical breach of contract involved: Robert Hamberg was hired to teach music, not to provide “skin flute” lessons to a 15-year-old girl.

But as they say, “close enough for government work,” I suppose.

UPDATE: Just to make clear that the Hamberg case is not an isolated incident, take a look at this small sample of recent news accounts:

  • April 15, Arizona Republic: “Dysart Unified School District officials are moving forward with plans to fire a teacher Marcos Alberto Cantu, who’s facing charges of sexual abuse and attempted child molestation. . . .Maricopa County Sherriff’s Office arrested Valley Vista High School math teacher and wrestling coach Marcos Alberto Cantu in January. Authorities accused him of fondling a 13-year-old girl. The 39-year-old teacher was hired four years ago at the school . . . Authorities accuse Cantu of fondling the victim while he was driving her home from her school. . . .Cantu previously worked as a teacher at Peoria High School and Sunrise Mountain High School, according to the Sheriff’s Office.”
  • April 15, Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald: “A 26-year-old former teacher accused of exchanging sexually explicit text messages and photographs with two Schuyler girls has been indicted by a federal grand jury in Omaha on child pornography charges. Former Schuyler Central High School teacher Jesse Harmon was arraigned last week in U.S. District Court in Omaha on enticing a minor in sexually explicit conduct, visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct and possession of child pornography.. . . Harmon was accused of exchanging text messages and lewd photos with a 16-year-old girl and another girl whose age was not disclosed. . . .Harmon was arrested on Jan. 19 . . . He resigned after his arrest. Harmon had taught language arts at Schuyler Central for the past two years. A high school staff handbook also listed Harmon as an assistant coach for football and track. Harmon admitted sending and receiving sexually explicit messages and photos via cell phone with the girls during questioning by investigators.”
  • April 15, Huntsville (Ala.) Times: “The Huntsville teacher accused of sexually abusing seven children at McDonnell Elementary is out of jail this evening after posting a $1 million bond. Harvey Aubin Knotts, 40 . . . was arrested April 6 [and] is charged with 10 counts of sexual abuse of a child under 12. The case involves seven female students at McDonnell, all ages 9 or 10  . . . The fourth-grade teacher was placed on administrative leave with pay the day of his arrest. Police in Bermuda say he is also under investigation there for similar allegations involving sexual contact with minors. Madison County prosecutors have confirmed that Knotts, who taught school in Bermuda, was previously convicted on the island of a sex-related charge involving a 13-year-old girl.”
  • April 15, Santa Cruz (Calif.) Sentinel: “A former Aptos Junior High math teacher pleaded guilty late Thursday to 19 felony accounts of sex abuse and related charges against a 13-year-old student . . .  Steven Jay Sande, 61, faces three to 35 years in prison . . .. Sande was arrested July 16, 2010 at his Santa Cruz home after the girl’s parents notified sheriff’s deputies they suspected their daughter was having a sexual relationship with her teacher. . . . Deputies found pornographic photos of the girl and discovered Sande had sent her inappropriate photos of himself. Sande admitted to 12 felony sex crimes and seven related charges stemming from the pornography . . . Sande was the girl’s math teacher, and had taught at the school for about 10 years.”

That’s four news stories from four states in a single day.

UPDATE II: A story from Saturday’s Frederick (Md.) News-Post:

A former Ballenger Creek [Md.] Middle School teacher pleaded guilty this week to three sex offenses involving juveniles, at least one of them a student of his, authorities in Mecklenburg County, N.C., said Friday.
A Mecklenburg County Superior Court judge ordered Brett Haight, 40, to spend four months in jail . . .
Haight, a teacher at Ballenger Creek Middle from August 1992 until the end of the 2003-04 school year . . . was investigated by the Frederick County Sheriff’s Office in 2002 after he was accused of inappropriately touching girls in his history class.
No charges were filed because statements made to deputies by the girls did not support moving forward with criminal charges . . .
After leaving Ballenger Creek Middle School, Haight worked at Walkersville High School until Jan. 25, 2006, when he resigned.
The North Carolina investigation was launched Dec. 1, 2009. Haight resigned from his teaching job there Jan. 6, 2010, and was arrested Feb. 5, 2010 . . .
Haight was charged with sexual activity with a 17-year-old girl. . . .
Sexual activity occurred at Haight’s residence and additional inappropriate conduct occurred on school grounds, authorities said after his arrest.

So this guy was accused in 2002 of “inappropiately touching girls” while teaching middle school in Maryland, but no criminal charges were filed. He then taught at another Maryalnd school, before moving to North Carolina where he was finally busted.


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