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'I'm really disgusted to see that number': 56 Nebraska educators linked to sexual misconduct

In return for pictures of a 14-year-old student’s naked breasts, a Norfolk student teacher bumped the girl’s grade from a 79 to a 95.

A Loup City teacher set up a camera in a locker room to spy on high school girls changing their clothes.

An Omaha middle school math teacher groomed and then sexually assaulted a female student in his classroom during lunch.

Since the beginning of 2014, at least 56 certified Nebraska educators were caught having inappropriate communication or sexual contact with students.

Their misconduct ranged from sexual intercourse with a student to dinner and a movie with a student.

At least 74 students or recent high school graduates were victimized. In some cases, the abuse occurred years before the perpetrators were caught.

Most perpetrators, but not all, were men.

Those are the central findings of a World-Herald investigation into the problem statewide.

After a series of high-profile criminal and civil cases, The World-Herald sought to find out how often Nebraska educators abused students.

There is no single, central database containing complete real-time records of such misconduct. Records that exist are spread across several different databases from different state agencies.

The World-Herald examined thousands of records from the courts and the Nebraska Department of Education to figure out how many teachers, coaches and administrators were caught and convicted or disciplined.


Theft, alcohol abuse among most common reasons Nebraska certified educators lost their license to teach

This table shows how many educators had their certification revoked for reasons other than sexual misconduct with a student. The World-Herald compiled these numbers from state disciplinary records going back to 1990. Source: Nebraska Department of Education.


The numbers come with a caveat — these were the cases that were uncovered or reported to authorities. The actual number of perpetrators and victims could be much higher.

A national expert said less than 10% of abused students tell somebody about the abuse because of fear, guilt or a misguided desire to protect the educator.

Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, has researched educator sexual misconduct for decades.

“From the kid’s perspective, what they see is they’re going to be told, ‘You’re just a kid. You’re not supposed to be having sex. You’re a slut. You’re this. You’re terrible. You’re horrible.’ So the kid doesn’t want to say anything because they’re ashamed, embarrassed, afraid.”

If the nonreporting percentage is accurate, then the actual number of Nebraska victims during that period could be in the hundreds.

The World-Herald recently wrote about a victim whose abuser was caught by accident when a neighbor surprised him in the girl’s home.

Anna, now 18, told The World-Herald about how starting when she was 12, her Davis Middle School math teacher, Brian Robeson, groomed and then sexually assaulted her outside of school, in his classroom during lunch, in a computer lab and in a bathroom. Robeson is now in prison.

Brian Robeson

Anna said Robeson’s lies and manipulation made her his puppet. She didn’t feel she could come forward about what was happening to her.

Anna is not the young woman’s real name. The World-Herald doesn’t name victims of sexual assault unless they want to be named.

Anna’s mom, an educator herself, said no one keeps data on educator sexual misconduct so, on one hand, she’s not surprised by the numbers uncovered by the newspaper.

“But I’m really disgusted to see that number in print,” she said. “Those were just the ones who were caught.”

The challenge of getting an accurate count is not unique to Nebraska.

In a 2004 report for the U.S. Department of Education, Shakeshaft wrote that educator misconduct was “woefully understudied.”

Since then, there’s been no national study to gauge the scope of the problem, Shakeshaft told The World-Herald.

“We don’t know any more than we did before,” she said.

Nebraska Education Commissioner Matt Blomstedt said there are discussions among state leaders on how to reduce incidents of educator misconduct.

Matt Blomstedt

“For me, the perfect number would be zero,” Blomstedt said. “The reality is, we have to make sure the system, No. 1, prevents that from happening and, No. 2, captures it as quickly as possible.”

To be counted in The World-Herald’s total, the perpetrators had to either be convicted of a crime against a student or disciplined by the Nebraska Department of Education for misconduct of a sexual nature involving a student — or both.

Brian Halstead, a deputy commissioner in the State Department of Education who investigated and prosecuted educators for professional practices violations from 1990 through 2017, said the department is catching all the cases it knows about.

Halstead said he has no way of knowing to what degree misconduct may be underreported.

“All I know is today there’s about 360,000 kids somewhere in the K-12 education system of public and nonpublic. I have absolutely no idea of how their experiences are going every day.”

In addition to revealing the scope of the problem, the investigation sheds some light on the perpetrators and victims.

Forty-five of the perpetrators were men. Eleven were women.

They taught virtually every academic subject — from industrial technology to English and art.

The most common certification held by the perpetrators was coaching. Coaching is a popular certification typically paired with other subject areas; for instance, a social studies teacher may also be certified to coach.

About a quarter of the certifications held by the perpetrators were coaching, physical education or health.

After coaching, English was the next most common certification.

Among the other subject areas, the numbers were too small to indicate a trend.

There is no discernible trend when it comes to the size of district where they worked. The perpetrators worked in large urban districts, middle-sized ones and the smallest rural districts. They were employed in both public and private schools.

And the victims?

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Mostly female, but not all.

Where records listed the victim’s gender, female victims outnumbered male 52 to 16.

Male educators, in nearly every case, targeted female students.

Female educators, in all but one instance, abused male students.

The average age of the female victims was just under 13 years. That average age reflects the inclusion of the six first-graders whom Omaha Public Schools teacher Gregory Sedlacek was convicted of sexually assaulting in 2018. The Sedlacek victims were outliers because of their young age. Without the Sedlacek victims factored in, the average female victim’s age was 15.4.

The average age of male victims was 16.2 years.

Of the cases found, 41 involved sex or sexual contact between the educator and victim. The majority of the rest involved inappropriate communication or behaviors that violated professional boundaries, including sexting, sending inappropriate messages or touching students in ways that made them feel uncomfortable.

Although the Nebraska Department of Education keeps complete records of its disciplinary actions, the records can lag years behind waiting for court action.

Department officials typically wait for a verdict before imposing discipline.

The World-Herald found that some of the most serious offenders don’t appear in the department discipline records. In cases where educators are prosecuted criminally, sometimes their certifications expire before their criminal cases are resolved, leaving the department with nothing to revoke.

For example, there is no record of any state action on the certification of Shad Knutson, an Omaha Public Schools middle school teacher who was convicted in 2013 of sexually abusing a student. His certification expired while he was awaiting the completion of his criminal case.

In contrast, the State Board of Education revoked the certificate of Robeson, the middle school teacher who sexually assaulted Anna.

However, if convicted of a sex crime, an offender’s name would likely appear on the state’s sex-offender registry. The conviction and sex-offender registration would be obvious red flags to future employment as long as HR directors were diligent about background checks.

The investigation did not answer the question of whether educator abuse is happening more frequently in Nebraska than in the past.

It is a challenge to obtain reliable, detailed records of abuse in past decades. Public mores have changed over the years. What used to be kept secret is now reported more often. And recent technology advancements have made it easier to catch the perpetrators, who often leave a trail of incriminating texts and emails.

That’s much different than before the Internet, Halstead said.

“Child pornography, you caught it because the mail postal inspector saw the brown paper wrapper going through the mail,” Halstead said.

He said comparing the prevalence today with past numbers is problematic. It presumes you knew how much child abuse there was 50 years ago, because back then people didn’t talk about it, he said.

“Human behavior has changed as to our own expectations, too,” he said.

According to Shakeshaft, there has been an increase in reports nationally, but it’s not clear if there’s been a rise in incidents.

Some data and anecdotal reports suggest that nationally more reports are being made to districts, she said.

She believes it could reflect more awareness that suspected abuse should be reported and acted on.

Available records did reveal that offenders in past decades have been as brazen, their acts as outrageous in some cases, as in recent years.

Disciplinary records from the 1990s document Nebraska educators giving students valentines and flowers, leaving notes in their lockers, giving them massages, grabbing their chests, fondling them in the classroom, taking them to motels and having sex with them.

In recent years, some cases have prompted public dismay.

Sedlacek, the first grade teacher, abused students on the playground and in his classroom. Of the cases examined by The World-Herald, the girls he assaulted were the youngest victims.

And Matthew Fedde, a former assistant principal at Millard South High School, sexually assaulted a student at the school. Fedde is also in prison.

Anna’s mom tells her students and colleagues to be aware of every adult in the school building — even the man tending to the vending machine.

She wants her fellow educators to be on guard and look for grooming behaviors and not wait until they see an assault actually happening to call authorities.

Their priority, she said, has to be on the students.

“Believe what you see. And what you feel. Those intuitive things.”

World-Herald staff writer Jeffrey Robb contributed to this story.

Notable crime news of 2019

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Gov. Pete Ricketts again makes property tax relief his top goal for Nebraska legislative session

LINCOLN — Gov. Pete Ricketts once again named property tax relief as his top priority heading into the new legislative session.

But tax cuts for military veterans, funding for flood recovery and money to continue addressing the state’s overcrowded prison system also rank high on his to-do list for the year.

Ricketts sat down with The World-Herald ahead of the Legislature’s Wednesday kickoff. He sounded some familiar themes during the conversation, including the need to control spending, oppose new taxes and encourage economic development.

Here are the highlights of the interview. His comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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Legislative priorities

We’ve seen an uptick in revenues from the financial forecasting board, and those revenues need to be put into tax relief. So that will be one of our top priorities. Property tax relief is going to be the No. 1 issue that we’re talking about.

I’ve continued to have conversations with Sen. (Lou Ann) Linehan as chair of the Revenue Committee, Sen. (Mike) Groene, members individually of the Revenue Committee, to work on a plan that we can get done in this legislative session. You recall last year we increased the property tax credit relief fund by 20%, and we want to build on that going into this year using those increasing revenues. I’m confident that we’ll have a plan to be able to get accomplished in this 2020 session. So that’s the first priority.

The second is continuing on that tax relief theme with regard to our military retirees, our veterans. Legislative Bill 153 is a 50% tax credit on military retirement benefits. That’s an important step for us to be competitive with the surrounding states, most of whom do not tax military retirement benefits. This will allow us to help hold on to our veterans so they can help us grow Nebraska.

Part of the budget priorities will be money for the flood recovery. We’re looking at, you know, over $700 million total damage. And so part of our budget program will be the recovery from all that damage. There will be other issues as well, such as the scholarship program, which I proposed last year, continuing work on corrections and so forth. Finally, the (business tax) incentive program is also up for renewal this year.

Property tax relief

Recall that we already increased the property tax credit relief fund by 20%, so that was meaningful last year. In fact, that fund has nearly doubled since I’ve been governor. It started off at $140 million and now it’s $275 million. The way we were able to accomplish that is by controlling our spending and allowing those additional revenues to go into tax relief. And that’s how we’ll continue to do this going forward. I’ll lay out all the numbers for everybody on Jan. 15, when we roll out the entire budget.

One of the things that we have to do is make sure we live within our budget. We’re not going to raise taxes to be able to do this. We have to live within our existing means. This is where the uptick in the forecast will help us be able to provide additional relief over what we’ve already done.

I also remind people that we didn’t get into this situation overnight, this has been in the making for the past dozen years or so. So when we think about how do we provide that tax relief, we have to think about long-term plans to be able to do that.

The only way we’ve been able to do that at the state level is by controlling our expenses, and that needs to happen at the local level as well. We’ve got 2,336 local taxing entities in the state of Nebraska. That means literally thousands of people are involved in your property taxes. It’s important that citizens go to those board meetings and really ask tough questions about the budget and make sure that those local taxing entities are controlling their spending so that when we provide additional tax relief from the state that is actually making it into people’s pocketbooks.

Nebraska legislators aim to finalize property tax proposal before session starts

In November, Revenue Committee members reached a general consensus on the “framework” of a property tax relief bill that would use the projected excess revenue to increase state aid to K-12 schools and gradually reduce property taxes by lowering the valuation of agricultural, residential and commercial properties for purposes of funding schools. But major sticking points remain.

Prisons

Well, let’s take a step back. One of the things that (Department of Corrections) Director (Scott) Frakes has laid out is his long-term plan for capital improvements. So we’ve gone to the Legislature and asked for numerous capital improvements, over $170 million worth, and the Legislature has granted us those dollars, which will expand our capacity.

BRENDAN SULLIVAN/THE WORLD-HERALD 

Gov. Pete Ricketts discusses plans for 2020 from his office in the Nebraska State Capitol in Lincoln on Friday.

We obviously have to work on talent retention, to be able to deliver the programming so that people are parole eligible by their parole eligible date. And that’s part of what this FOP (prison workers union) contract is about.

We’re in a state where we’re growing, and so it’s a tight labor market. We’ve got to be competitive. This will help us attract and retain that talent, which will then allow us to be able to deliver the programming, which will then allow us to be able to make sure people are parole eligible by their parole eligible date.

We’re looking at other ideas that I’m not prepared to talk to you about at this point. We’ve got continuing ideas on how to address the issues with regard to keeping the people of Nebraska safe.

Labor shortages

What we’re doing is creating that talent pipeline with regard to workforce development. So it started with our program, the Developing Youth Talent Initiative, back in 2015 to get private-sector companies to work with school districts, starting in seventh and eighth grade, to expose kids to careers we’ve got available in manufacturing and IT and that sort of thing.

And we’ve got the career academy to be able to help those kids continue to pursue those interests to earn college credit. We also have registered apprenticeship programs; in fact, we’ve increased those programs by 44% since 2016.

What I proposed last year was our Nebraska talent scholarship program, to be able to help make that postsecondary education more affordable in those high-demand career fields. While that did not get funded last year, I want to continue to work with the Legislature on a scholarship program for our community colleges, our state colleges, our university system.

We’ve got to focus on getting that complete talent pipeline so that we’re making the best use of all the talent that we’ve got available in the state.

Medicaid expansion

We’ve laid out a plan to implement Medicaid expansion that is going to make sure we have a great quality system for the people who qualify. We are doing some innovative things with regard to how we’re delivering that care. So for example, we’re going to have a basic plan for everybody and then allow people to earn additional benefits by focusing on wellness or taking care of a loved one or getting a job or something like that.

This is a big, complicated program that we’ve got to implement. We’re talking about adding maybe 90,000 people to the Medicaid rolls here in the state, and we don’t have an enrollment system to be able to do that. So we’ve got to develop that.

We’ve got to make sure we’ve got providers to be able to take those people. We’ve got to make sure our managed care organizations, their systems are up to date. We’ve laid out that project plan to be able to deliver that by the fall of this year. And, obviously, if we can do that sooner, we will do that.

What we’re trying to do is make sure we avoid mistakes that other states have made. So this is why we have to put together a thought-out program, a high-quality program, (so) that people will be on it who deserve to be on it, but not people who don’t deserve to be on it. I believe Nebraskans are very generous, they want to help out people, but they also want to make sure we’re reserving those resources for people who truly need the help.

Death penalty

We currently don’t have any of the cases that are at that stage where we would be able to carry out an execution, from the legal process standpoint. When we have somebody that meets that criteria, then we will work to be able to carry out that execution. So we will continue to have the death penalty here in Nebraska, we will continue to carry out those executions.

Redistricting

I don’t think the Legislature needs to make any changes to the current system. It’s the Legislature’s constitutional responsibility to redistrict after the census, and that’s what they should do. To be specific, they shouldn’t delegate that authority to anybody else. They should take the responsibility as state senators who are elected by the people to fulfill their constitutional duties, this being one of their constitutional duties. They shouldn’t try to dodge that responsibility.

Future plans

My plans are to continue to be the best governor I can be for the next three years. I am not running for Senate.


Nebraska and Iowa’s members of congress

Photos: Nebraska's and Iowa's members of Congress

Articles
As Iraq reels from strike, country's politicians turn against Washington
DEATH OF SOLEIMANI

BEIRUT— The crowd thronged around the two coffins, one draped in the Iraqi tricolor and the other wrapped in the red, white and green of the Iranian flag. Behind them, thousands trudged alongside a procession of trucks, chanting, "There is no god but God, and America is the enemy of God."

Among those at the fore in Baghdad's Hurriya Square on Saturday morning were Iraqi government officials once considered friends of the U.S.: Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq's caretaker prime minister;

Nouri Maliki, a former longtime prime minister pushed into power by Washington; Faleh Fayyad, who met with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper in October. They and other Iraqi politicians were in attendance to mourn the death of those killed Friday in a targeted U.S. drone strike near Baghdad's international airport.

Their presence was but one measure of the anger raging through Iraq's leadership class in the aftermath of the attack ordered by President Donald Trump to kill Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Tehran's elite Quds force and mastermind behind Iran's regional military strategy. Also slain were AbuMahdi Muhandis, the deputy head of a bloc of Iran-backed Iraqi militias, and several others.

For many in Iraq, the attack marks a death blow to U.S. influence in the country.

"I'm stunned. I'm speechless. This is a declaration of war," said Muwaffaq Rubaie, a former Iraqi national security adviser under Maliki, in a phone interview on Saturday.

Ever since America ousted longtime strongman Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraqi political life has required a balancing act between Tehran and Washington. Iraq's economy, its access to oil markets, even the selection of its premier and president have proved a function of a hard-won battle of wills between the bitter adversaries.

On one side has been the U.S., the architect of Iraq's post-Saddam order, an ally in the country's existential fight against Islamic State militants and the guarantor of Western involvement in its economic development. On the other side is Iran, far closer both in proximity and in shared religion with the majority Shiite Muslim sect in Iraq.

Iran is Iraq's next-door neighbor, with a 900-mile border between the two. And though it once fought an almost eight-year war against Hussein, Iran became one of Iraq's top trading partners after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The kinship is more than economic. Every year, more than 10 million Iranian Shiites stream into Iraq for the annual Arbaeen pilgrimage.

Iran has wielded its influence to infiltrate almost every level of Iraqi society. Indeed, it used religious fervor in 2014 when Iraq's top cleric, Ali Sistani, rallied hundreds of thousands of Shiite volunteers to fight the Sunni-dominated Islamic State — also an enemy of the U.S. —when its forces reached Baghdad's gates.

Out of those groups grew the Popular Mobilization Units, a collection of Shiite-dominated militias that stalled — with Iranian assistance — the extremists' rampage. Tehran later helped formalize the militias into an official arm of Iraq's armed forces.

A massive U.S. Army study of the Iraq War released last year declared that "an emboldened and expansionist Iran appears to be the only victor" of the nearly 17-year U.S. effort, which has cost nearly $1 trillion and thousands of American and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives.

The attack Friday leaves the U.S., or those with mild pro-U.S. views, with even less room to maneuver.

"Politicians who wanted a neutral approach are in a difficult position, because the U.S. has carried out assassinations on Iraq's territory without approval, without authority," said Sajad Jiyad, director of the Baghdad-based Bayan Center think tank, in a phone interview on Saturday.

Though Muhandis was a longtime U.S. adversary, Jiyad said, the killing, in the eyes of many politicians, was an attack on one of the arms of Iraq's security forces — a point Abdul Mahdi, the prime minister, emphasized in a statement on Friday.

"Assassinating an Iraqi military leader with an official position is an aggression on Iraq," he said, adding that the two slain leaders— Abdul Mahdi dubbed them "martyrs" — were important "symbols in achieving victory" over the Islamic State.

"If Iraq is forced to choose between the two sides, more logically it's the Iranians that would be the choice: They'll always be there, the Americans won't," Jiyad said. "The problem is no one wanted to make that choice."

Well before the airstrike ordered by Trump, relations between Washington and Baghdad had been souring.

There was the misstep of the president's visit to Asad Air Base in December 2018, when he met with U.S. troops for three hours but left without meeting any Iraqi officials.

Another snub came when the U.S. failed to extend an invitation to Iraq's leaders for a White House visit, the first time that has happened since 2003. Earlier this year, U.S. officials all but forced the government to divide lucrative power generation contracts between Siemens, the giant German corporation billed as the favorite, and General Electric.

The impression among the political class, said Ali Taher, an analyst at the Bayan Center, is that "the U.S. is not to be trusted."

At the heart of U.S.-Iraqi relations is the future status of the remaining 5,000 or so American soldiers and the unspecified number of contractors in the country. Their continued presence, a topic of perennial contention in Iraq's fractious parliament that was set to be discussed in an emergency session Sunday, may be the first fallout of the attack, even as Washington moves to station additional troops in the region.

In the immediate aftermath, Iraqi politicians had already begun to agitate for a repeal of the countries' military arrangement, which consists of a train-and-assist capacity and was instrumental in taking back territories overrun by the Islamic State.

The Trump administration does not publicly acknowledge the depth of anti-American sentiment, saying many Iraqis side with the United States but are pressured to voice support for Iran by its proxies. Robert O'Brien, Trump's national security adviser, said the White House would be "disappointed" if Iraq votes to boot the Americans after the U.S. has invested "enormous amounts of blood and treasure" in the country.

"We're working with our allies on the ground to prevent it (being voted out) from happening," said a senior State Department official, briefing reporters in Washington on condition of anonymity in keeping with administration protocols. "We are a positive presence in Iraq, but not for Iran. They view us as a threat.

"The government of Iraq right now is faced with a choice whether they want to be an Iranian satellite state or whether they want to be a sovereign nation state of good standing in the international community," the official said. "We would help them move toward the latter."

A more immediate effect has been the reduction of the U.S.'s cooperation with Iraq in fighting the remnants of the Islamic State, with reports that the U.S.-led coalition had scaled back operations against the extremists, while also cutting back on its training duties with Iraqi forces.

Saturday evening brought another sign of the anger now facing the Americans. Just hours after the funeral procession, sirens blared near the U.S. Embassy.

It was another of the rocket attacks like one that killed a U.S. contractor Dec. 27, which the White House says spurred its actions in the first place. The projectiles slammed near the compound; there were no immediate reports of casualties.

DEVELOPMENTS

From the Iranians: Iran Saturday promised a protracted response to the killing of the Islamic Republic's most prominent military man. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told the relatives of Gen. Qassem Soleimani that "they won't see the effects of their mistake today, but they will witness it over many, many years to come," according to Iran's state broadcaster.

52 targets: President Donald Trump warned Saturday that the U.S. was ready to respond if Tehran strikes back. He said the U.S. had already "targeted 52 Iranian sites (representing the 52 American hostages taken by Iran many years ago), some at a very high level & important to Iran & the Iranian culture." Trump did not identify the targets but added that they would be "HIT VERY FAST AND VERY HARD."

Justification: The White House delivered a formal notification of the drone strike to Capitol Hill on Saturday, as required under the War Powers Act, according to a senior Democratic aide and another official familiar with the matter. But the document, which is entirely classified, drew scathing criticism from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who said in a statement that the notification "raises more questions than it answers." She demanded that the administration brief lawmakers about the strike and what responses President Donald Trump is considering.

Protests: Hundreds of demonstrators gathered in Lafayette Square across from the White House on Saturday afternoon to voice opposition to the deployment of additional U.S. troops to the Middle East, demand the removal of American forces from Iraq and warn against getting into a war with Iran. Organized in Washington by Code Pink: Women for Peace and the ANSWER Coalition (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), the protest was one of dozens that took place Saturday in cities and towns across the country including New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; Miami; Salt Lake City; Memphis, Tennessee; and Tucson, Arizona. — AP and Washington Post