Girl Holding 'Stop' Hand Up

Stories of teacher sexual abuse make for the kind of headlines that no one wants to write and no one wants to read. When the very person trusted to help encourage and equip a child becomes an abuser of that child—and when such behavior happens again and again in a community—the painful-but-necessary questions that must be asked are "How did this happen," and "What can a community do to prevent it from happening again?"

In the past year, the Lake of the Ozarks community has seen three different school employees—a principal, a teacher, and a janitor—charged with varying crimes all related to sexual abuse or sexual misconduct with a student. On March 13, 2019, Joseph Devore was charged with two counts of Class E Felony Sexual Misconduct with a Child Under 15, after he allegedly exposed himself to a student in the bathroom of Oak Ridge Intermediate School, in the Camdenton R-III School District. The probable cause statement for his arrest said he had been a suspect multiple times in previously alleged incidents of sexual misconduct, but had never been charged. In February of 2018, Joseph Perry Rice IV, K-12 Principal at Climax Springs R-IV school district, was accused of soliciting sex and nude photos from a former student in the Miller County R-III School District.

That was not the only incident where a teacher alleged to have sexually abused a student at one school ended up as a teacher or administrator at another.

For another local family, news of their daughter's alleged sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher came in a phone call on April 17, 2018. School of the Osage staff members called the parents of an Osage Middle School student and requested the couple come to the school to discuss an “important matter” regarding their daughter.

In the hours that followed, they learned the 13-year-old girl had been sexually molested during school hours. And erasing any doubt that it all could be a horrible misunderstanding, there was video evidence. The incident was captured by a surveillance camera on the bus the class was taking on a school-sanctioned field trip.

Adding to the nightmare was the revelation that the alleged molestation was reportedly committed by one of the very people entrusted with the welfare and safety of students. The person who allegedly violated their adolescent daughter was seventh-grade science teacher Mark Alan Edwards, 44, of Eldon.

Struggling to absorb the stomach-churning news, the victim’s parents found themselves alternating between confusion, disbelief, disgust and outrage.

“You know how you get those feelings that start in your face and then travel through your entire body, well that’s how it was,” the victim’s father said. “I kept wanting to think that it isn’t real or maybe it’s a misunderstanding, and then they told us about the video and I didn’t know whether to scream or cry.”

It’s important to note that Edwards admitted to molesting the girl on the school bus in a graphic statement to Miller County Sheriff’s Department Detective Jason Conn, according to the probable cause statement for his arrest. It recounts a horrific scenario that will no doubt haunt the victim and her family for years to come. And authorities would soon learn that this may have been just one of several occasions when the once-trusted teacher allegedly betrayed the female students in his care. 

On April 18, 2018, authorities charged Edwards with statutory sodomy of a person less than 14 years old and sexual contact with a student, in the case of the girl on the school bus. Then, on May 7, an additional charge of third-degree child molestation was leveled against Edwards pertaining to the alleged assault of a second female School of the Osage student under the age of 14.

Authorities booked Edwards on a $300,000 bond and he remains incarcerated at the Miller County Jail at the time of this story's publication. 

Court is the next step in the victims’ arduous emotional journey through the justice system, a process that has brought to light more questions than answers about Edwards’s alleged misconduct while teaching in three local school districts: School of the Osage, Eldon and Versailles. Court records indicate that there is valid reason for concern.

A History of Misconduct

Documents filed in a federal civil lawsuit against the School of the Osage School District claim that the district was “deliberately indifferent” to sexual misconduct complaints about Edwards.

The lawsuit claims Edwards demonstrated an ongoing pattern of predatory behavior that included providing female students with answers to tests, quizzes and assignments in exchange for allowing him to look down their shirts and touch them on various parts of their bodies. 

Moreover, the civil lawsuit cites an account by the mother of one alleged victim who insists that she reported Edwards’s nefarious behavior to the school district’s middle school administrative office back in November 2017, a full five months prior to the incident on the school bus. 

Describing a disturbingly familiar scenario, the mother details a phone conversation she had with School of the Osage Middle School Assistant Principal David Harris, wherein she reports to informing him that her seventh-grade daughter confided to her that Edwards was allegedly being sexually inappropriate with female students, including her daughter. She claims to have told Harris that Edwards was making sexually suggestive comments, touching students in a sexual way and had caressed her daughter in a sexual manner while giving her homework assistance in his classroom.

The mother went on to state that Harris seemed dismissive of her complaints, but he assured her the district would look into the matter.

“It certainly appears that the signs of his misconduct were there, and the signs were blatant,” the father of one of the victims shared in frustration. “Whether it is because of insufficient training, ineffective training or because no one wants to get involved, this illicit behavior is allowed to continue, and our children are the ones who end up paying the price.”

In addition to the allegations regarding Edwards’s tenure with School of the Osage, the lawsuit claims he committed similar sexual improprieties against female students when he was employed by the Morgan County R-II School District as a middle school teacher. The evidence includes a statement given by a former Versailles student who claims she left the school district because of Edwards's overtures.

If true, these allegations indicate that Edwards was a problem for local school officials long before April 2018 and he appears to have left numerous victims in his wake as he moved from one district to the other without consequence.

Where Do We Go from Here?

As difficult as it may be to digest the details of Mark Edwards’s criminal charges, they point to an ugly truth that must be confronted head-on to protect vulnerable students from predators who count on witnesses and school officials turning a blind eye to misconduct, or simply hoping the allegations are unfounded rumors, opting not to rock the boat.

According to a 2010 Government Accountability Report, on average, an offending teacher can be transferred to three different schools before he or she is reported to the police; and one offender can have as many as 73 victims in his or her lifetime. This stream of abuse continues for many reasons that include guilt and embarrassment on the part of the victims and their families, insufficient background checks and screening processes, and at times, the desire of school officials to avoid negative publicity. As a result, predators avoid criminal charges and disciplinary actions, while they easily move on to new schools and more victims. 

Recognizing the importance of laws, regulations, and policies in protecting students, Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Lake Ozark is sponsoring a bill designed to ensure that teachers with a record of sexual misconduct are blocked from moving from one school district to another.

If passed, the bill will give school districts complete access to records from a teacher's past employment and will be able to see any history of sexual misconduct through the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The bill will also require additional training for all new school board members along with annual training for sitting school board members. Students in the sixth grade and up will benefit from a provision of the bill that provides student training on recognizing the signs of inappropriate behavior and asking for help.

While the “pass the trash” bill can be a significant step in fighting the growing tide of student sexual assault, laws alone cannot protect children or speak for them when they can’t find the words to describe the hurt. 

Too often, the code of silence is as sinister an enemy as the perpetrator committing the crime. 

If you have been victimized by a school employee or you have any information regarding assault by a school staff member, contact your local law enforcement agency and report the abuse to the Missouri Division of Social Services Hotline at 1-800-392-3738.

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