It's been a rough couple of months for the Tampa Bay area's teaching profession.
Over an eight-week period, seven educators faced disciplinary actions, ranging from suspension to prison time, because of inappropriate relationships — in most cases sexual — with students. As if that weren't bad enough, the area's most notorious teacher-sex offender, Debra Lafave, resurfaced to ask for a reduction to the sentence that many already argued was too short.
All the activity, particularly the arrest of two female Hillsborough teachers and one female Pasco substitute over the most recent two weeks, has attracted a national spotlight. CNN reporters called, as did those from Inside Edition and NBC's Today Show, which aired a piece titled "Tampa Teachers In Trouble."
"What's going on there?" anchor Matt Lauer wondered, as he introduced the story.
The attention infuriates local educators.
"It makes us all look bad," Bloomingdale High teacher Candice Remmert said.
Even the host of a local radio show that's making fun of the entire situation found the spotlight's glare a little too harsh.
"It's always nice to be known for something," said the 98-Rock DJ "Buckethead," who's sponsoring a contest to see who can guess which school will have the next sex scandal. "I just don't think this is the thing we want to be known for."
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But perhaps the awareness is exactly what's needed, said Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation in Las Vegas.
Sexual abuse of students by teachers has been going on "probably as long as the public school system & has been in place," Miller said.
In fact, teacher misconduct cases in Florida "have not increased really at all," said Pam Stewart, Florida's deputy chancellor for educator quality.
The difference now is that with each story that airs, people get the clear message that such actions are wrong, Miller said. That leads to a greater willingness to make a complaint.
In Florida, the adoption of the Jessica Lunsford Act has further heightened understanding of the problems, said Linda Kipley, director of the Hillsborough school district's professional standards office. The act requires schools to more aggressively check the backgrounds of anyone who has contact with students.
"I believe that society is more sensitive today as more of these cases come up & so they're more willing to report and react," Kipley said.
Pinellas teachers association executive director Jade Moore sees another factor at play, too.
"It's a function of the quality of teachers we're hiring, in my opinion," Moore said. "When you don't have anyone to choose from and you have to hire anyone who comes in the door, you get in trouble."
Hillsborough teacher Stephanie Ragusa, arrested on charges of having sex with a student, went through alternative certification. Lisa Marinelli, a Pasco long-term substitute arrested on similar charges, has a high school diploma and two days of training.
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Area school district officials say they do what they can to prevent sexual predators from getting hired.
Applicants go through extensive background checks, for instance, and must provide written references. If someone doesn't return a reference or a phone call, "then we have those little red flags & and we react to those red flags," Kipley said.
Once hired, principals reinforce at least annually that even perceptions of inappropriate behavior matter and to act accordingly, said David LaRoche, principal of Hudson High School.
But even the most sweeping reviews and regular reminders to be on guard can't predict or prevent future behavior, noted Pasco assistant superintendent Renalia DuBose.
"I wish that we could make sure that a person who is going to do something 10 years from now never gets hired," DuBose said. "But all we can do is follow the safeguards that the state puts in place."
The Hillsborough School Board plans a workshop to talk about what further steps it can take. Board member Candy Olson suggested the district might look into finding experts who can help the schools deal with the problem differently.
Mary Jo McGrath, a California lawyer who specializes in dealing with sexual misconduct in schools, contends that most districts' training does not meet the real needs in dealing with this "opportunistic crime." The training often deals with abuse outside the school, or sexual harassment, she said, but rarely gets into the ways to identify the trolling, grooming and lulling behaviors that pedophiles use.
"What the community should really clamor for at this point is a quality preventive program," McGrath said.
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In the meantime, the Florida Legislature is moving ahead with its Ethics In Education Act. It would increase the penalties for teachers who are found guilty of abusing students, and for district leaders who don't aggressively investigate accusations.
It would bar confidentiality agreements for fired teachers and require districts to create procedures for people to submit complaints without fear of retaliation. Substitutes would be considered "instructors" in the bill.
Sponsor Sen. Don Gaetz, a former Okaloosa County superintendent, called the act the "most important piece of education legislation that I have ever touched."
And, he added, "given the examples just coming out of your area recently, it seems like we need it."
Times staff writers Letitia Stein and Donna Winchester contributed to this story. Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.