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Experts disagree on frequency of sexual abuse of students

By Scott Reeder, sreeder@qconline.com
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Kevin Kilgallen a former Elgin School District teacher is serving a 30-year sentence for predatory criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse.

CHESTER -- Kevin Kilgallen had the characteristics many parents wanted in a teacher: clean-cut, family man, a master's degree, 10-years experience, excellent job evaluations and he even taught Sunday school.

But in 2003, Kilgallen confessed to police that he molested a 9-year-old girl in an elementary school classroom. He later recanted and pleaded innocent.

The former Elgin School District teacher is serving a 30-year sentence for predatory criminal sexual assault and aggravated criminal sexual abuse after being convicted during a jury trial.

"It would be so much easier if these people had horns growing out the back of their heads. Then people might be willing to admit that there are people like this in our schools. Right now, educators are having a serious case of denial," said Mary Jo McGrath, a California attorney who specializes in education.

For his part, Kilgallen still maintains he is innocent and said that his confession was coerced.

"She said something inappropriate happened. I was in the police station they were telling me she was saying I forced myself on her; I put my penis in her mouth and all this stuff," Kilgallen said during a prison interview.

Kilgallen's attorney argued during the jury trial that the 9-year-old girl made the story up because she was unhappy about a failing grade she received on a social studies test.

"I believe that children being abused by teachers is common. I wouldn't be surprised if every school district in America has someone harming children," McGrath said.

McGrath spent much of her career prosecuting educator misconduct cases before the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing. She has also provided expert testimony in high-profile cases such as that of Mary Kay Letourneau, the Washington school teacher who had two children with one of her teenaged students. She was convicted of statutory rape and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Teacher unions contend they too are concerned about the welfare of children, but believe instances of sexual abuse are rare. And they are quick to add their members are vulnerable to the lies of children.

"Even with the system currently in place, innocent teachers' careers are destroyed by false or malicious allegations. Once an allegation is made public, an employee's reputation is forever tainted," said Dave Comerford, spokesman for the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

Dennis Kuba, an Illinois State Police investigator, contends this argument is ridiculous. He noted that children lie to get out of trouble not to get into it.

Kuba said in all the years he's investigated sex crimes he has never had a case prosecuted in which a child lied about being abused by non-family member. "Occasionally a child will be coached by parent to lie during a custody dispute but that is easily discovered when the child is interviewed," he said

Kuba has specialized in investigating child sex crimes for much of his career.

"The problem isn't that many teachers do this. The problem is how many children one pedophile can harm once he becomes a teacher," he said.

Just how many children a sex offender typically victimizes is a bit of an open question, North Carolina psychologist Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dey said. She has studied the sex abuse crisis within the Catholic Church extensively and served as a consultant to the church.

Frawley-O'Dey noted that she treated one sexually abused patient who was one of more than 180 documented victims of a New York teacher.

But such cases are not the norm.

Oregon researchers used a polygraph to interview more than 200 child molesters from 1983 through 1999 and found on average those interviewed had victimized about a dozen youngsters each, sex abuse researcher Jan Hindman and Assistant U.S. Attorney James Peters noted in a December 2001 article in "Federal Probation."

One thing that researchers do agree on is that childhood sexual abuse is one of the most underreported crimes.

A 1991 study conducted by Dan Wishnietsky, a professor at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina found that one in eight North Carolina girls graduating from high school said they've had some sort of sexual contact with a school employee.

"It wasn't just sexual intercourse we are also talking about touching, petting, things like that. And I am not saying that 11 or 12 percent of teachers are abusing children. One or two teachers in a large high school can have a large number of victims," he said.

Wishnietsky said most sexual contact between students and teachers happens at the high school level. He added female athletes being coached by male coaches are particularly vulnerable.

"Parents do not want to believe that the most popular teacher in school has been fondling his students. And administrators don't want parents to find out that a bad teacher is on the payroll," Wishnietsky said. "This is why the information is not being made public, even within education circles."

David Finkelhor, director of the University of New Hampshire's Crimes against Children Research Center said not all teachers who become involved with students are pedophiles.

"At younger grades, the offenders we are dealing with have a sexual orientation that attracts them to children. At a high school level, it is normal to be sexually attracted to students. But it is wrong to act upon the impulses."