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Dirty Secrets: Family's tragedy helped launch organization for victims

Monday, November 01, 1999

By Jane Elizabeth Zemel, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Mary Ann Werner and her husband, both former teachers, had always been involved in their children's schools and in their lives.

So when their teen-age son began spending hours alone in his room, dumped his friends and passively watched his grades tumble, they were baffled. They worried, but hoped it was simply adolescent moodiness.


It was years before they discovered that their son was being systematically molested by a teacher -- a teacher whose friendliness "crossed the line," said the boy's mother.

Werner, who graduated from Seton Hill College and now lives in Copake, N.Y., discovered her son's secret when she found notes he had written to himself about the abuse.

Like many abused children, he never told anyone.

Because of her son's experience, Werner founded S.E.S.A.M.E. -- Survivors of Educator Sexual Abuse and Misconduct Emerge. She and other officials with the New York-based, non-profit organization provide support for victims of abuse, speak at conferences around the country on abuse by educators, maintain a Web site and publish a newsletter on the issue.

While it's easy to confuse the signs of abuse with typical childish or adolescent behavior, there are some standard warning signals. According to researchers, parents should investigate possible abuse if children:

have abrupt changes in mood, or behave aggressively

withdraw from family or friends

change behavior or academic performance at school

have unexplained new clothes, toys or extra money

exhibit sexual behavior or use sexual language that isn't age-appropriate

suddenly don't want to go to school

have nightmares or can't sleep

have a loss of appetite

"There is just so seldom any physical evidence," said Kris Wilson, a college professor from Oregon whose daughter was abused by her drama teacher.

While "a gut feeling doesn't stand up in court," she recommended that parents report any suspicions about teachers to school officials. "Put it in the principal's hands," she advised.

In Pennsylvania, suspected abuse by teachers should be reported to local school officials as well as the state Department of Education. In West Virginia, teacher misconduct complaints can be made to the county board of education; in Ohio, to the state or to the local school district.

An official complaint form for Pennsylvania can be found on the Internet at:

Or, complaints can be made in writing to department officials, who will mail a form back to the complainant. All complaints must be notarized.

If state officials determine the complaint is valid, the teacher will be notified and further investigation will begin. The teacher will be called to a hearing, and the outcome will be one of the following:

No action. The case is sealed, and the information is not public.

Public reprimand. An official letter from the disciplinary committee will be kept in the school district's personnel file and will be public information.

Private reprimand. Same as above, except the information will not be public.

Revocation. The teacher's certificate is taken, but the teacher may apply for reinstatement at any time.

Suspension. The teacher's certificate is taken away for a certain period of time, especially when he has been charged with a crime. The certificate later may be reinstated if the teacher meets certain conditions, such as counseling, or is found not guilty of the crime. Or, the certificate may later be revoked, especially in cases where the teacher is convicted.

Voluntary surrender. The teacher voluntarily gives up his certificate, usually to avoid further investigation.

Whatever the decision, teachers may appeal within 30 days.

For more information about educator abuse and prevention, check the S.E.S.A.M.E. Web site at

Additional information about child abuse, along with a listing of sex offenders nationwide, can be found at

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