Efforts to prevent student-teacher relationships need to go beyond background checks, experts say

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Despite the common warning given to children about stranger danger, according to the Charleston, SC-based non-profit Darkness to Light, 90 percent of victims know their abuser.

In WBTV's 2017 archives, there were 11 cases of teachers arrested in the viewing area for having alleged inappropriate relationship with a student. Those 11 arrests do not include teachers who were arrested for child pornography or other crimes.

To become a teacher at a school, there are several types of background checks the person must pass to be hired. Criminal history, sex offender databases, and drug screenings are a few of the common requirements an applicant would need to pass. A Charlotte-Mecklenburg School (CMS) spokesperson says the district surpasses what is required by the state.

"By requiring additional background checks through a third-party vendor and through the State Bureau of Investigation," Chief Communications Officer for CMS Tracey Russ said.

With these strict standards, we wanted to know what could change to where a teacher is suddenly accused of a serious crime. It is important to note that this type of behavior is not the norm, and that most teachers mean well. However, detectives say there are some who become teachers because of an ulterior motive.

Sergeant of the Crimes Against Children division in the Special Victims Unit of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD) Jem Jones says there are two types of child sexual predators.

The first type is known as the "preferential predator."

"Those are your intelligent predators who sexually fantasize about children," Sgt. Jones said. "They can choose a career based on building trust and having access to children, so that when and if it ever does come out after they act on whatever drives them or turns them on, when it comes out people always say, 'I never believed that guy would do that.'"

Sgt. Jones says this type of predator is typically the more dangerous of the two because of how patient they can be. He says they will spend years building up a good reputation so as not to attract any suspicion about their motives.

The second type of predator is the "situational predator."

This kind does not fantasize about being in a relationship with a child. Instead, they act because the opportunity presents itself and they often have a problematic background.

"They have issues with boundaries and what's appropriate," Sgt. Jones said. "They also don't have much of a conscious, or empathy."

Sgt. Jones says the situational predator could not have been taken care of as a child, grew up witnessing domestic violence in the home, or never saw what a healthy relationship looks like.

Brandon Risher is a Clinical Psychologist and Associate Director of Presbyterian Psychological Services. He has counseled both victims and predators, some who have committed crimes in schools.

"There are going to be instances where people may slip through the normal protocols that you would have and you can't do precognition, and you can't know what someone is going to do," Risher said.

Risher explains a phenomenon called transference, that could explain how some student-teacher relationships start. He says transference is an unconscious feeling you have toward someone that you can't explain or you don't understand yourself.

"That student is providing something for them, there is some void that they are missing that that student can provide for them. Whether that be boosting one's ego, it can be a variety of things," Risher said.

He says the connection a teacher feels with a student can start off as something innocent before spiraling out of control. With hundreds of different social media sites and apps out there, it is not hard for a teacher to reach out to a student outside of the classroom.

"It's something as simple as a student sending a picture and you like it, and then the student wonders, 'oh well, why did you like my picture?'" Risher said. "And then the conversation begins."

While some teachers who do not have good intentions may slip past normal protocols, experts say there are ways to spot red flags.

Sgt. Jones advises parents to trust their instincts about an adult who is spending time with their child. He also says to remember what is appropriate and what is inappropriate for a teacher to do with your child.

Red flags to look out for could be a teacher offering or giving your child a ride home or your child going to a teacher's house. He says always be wary about an adult who wants to spend extra time or takes a special interest in your child.

He says if you suspect something has happened to your child, the worst thing you could do is to ask your child what happened. He says if you suspect anything, report it to police immediately.

CMS says if a child is the victim of this type of crime there are resources they can provide for the families involved.

"Which can include outreach to families, to students, we do have the capability for guidance counseling," Russ said.

Other school districts require training for all teachers, staff members, and volunteers about what is appropriate interaction with students. For example, Rock Hill Schools requires all adults who work in the school district to pass a course provided by Darkness to Light.

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