In a disturbing trend, prosecutors have noticed a slight increase in the number of people employed by local school districts engaging in sex acts with students under their supervision.
Those arrested in the past two years on charges of engaging in sex acts with high school students include Bobby Scott Perigo, a Delano High student affairs specialist; Vanessa Jean Hooker, a Beardsley Junior High teacher; Marci Lynn Kindell, a Kern High School District instructional aide; Edward Gonzalez, a Sierra Middle School teacher's aide; and Francisco Martinez, a Foothill High drumline coach.
With the exception of Gonzalez, whose case is ongoing and who is on administrative leave, each is no longer employed by his or her respective school districts. Perigo, Hooker and Kindell have been convicted of sex crimes.
Assistant District Attorney Scott Spielman said there's an average of five to 10 arrests throughout the county each year of teachers, teacher's aides and coaches on charges involving sex with minors.
"They tend to be people in a position of trust or authority, which is what you often find in perpetrators of sex crimes against children," he said.
Several local attorneys have also noticed the increase in reports of these types of crimes.
The upswing, they say, is likely at least partly due to the proliferation of social media.
"I think social media is making it easier for the immature offender to connect with the curious participant," attorney Kyle J. Humphrey said.
While indicative of antisocial and unacceptable behavior, these cases rarely involve anyone he, or psychologists he's brought in to examine clients, would classify as being a sexual deviant, Humphrey said. He said by and large the school personnel involved in these cases are just immature, and are engaging in behavior that was considered socially acceptable throughout most of human history.
"We tend to moralize it and overreact and act as if only a pervert would do this, but it's really not pervert behavior," he said.
Still, he said, people with that immaturity shouldn't be teaching children.
For some students, school is where they're first treated and appreciated as an adult, Humphrey said. He urged parents to make their children feel good about themselves so they don't feel the need to seek affirmation elsewhere.
Michael C. Lukehart, a retired attorney who practiced law in Kern County for decades, said there has been an erosion of social barriers between students and teachers, and with that comes a change in behavior. Just a generation or two ago, teachers and children existed socially in totally different worlds, he said.
"When's the last time you saw a teacher wearing a tie and insisting on being called 'Mr.' or 'Miss'?" he asked. "Everyone is buddy-buddy. My teachers never pretended to be my friend."
David A. Torres has defended school personnel accused of sexual misconduct and seen the negative impact social media can have on their lives.
"I have seen social media used in a way detrimental to their careers," he said. "Whatever gets put on the internet is out there to the world."
Torres has advised clients against becoming Facebook friends with students, and suggested a teacher who wants to engage in social media should use as many controls as possible limiting who can view their posts. It's important they don't put themselves in a situation where they can be compromised, he said.
Social media, Torres said, puts teachers at a disadvantage. Students with a grudge can make allegations public online that are quickly shared by others, leading to media interest and investigations.
"With the strength and the force of the overall power one can have using social media, someone who has a vendetta against a teacher, parent, another student or administrator can use it as a sword and make false allegations or allegations that are over-exaggerated," he said.
Without giving names, Torres said he has investigated numerous cases where a teacher was accused of sexual misconduct by one or more students but the allegations could not be substantiated.
He noted cases involving alleged sex crimes on the part of teachers, or law enforcement, have a tendency to receive more media attention than a person working in a different field.
"They have this tremendous amount of trust bestowed upon them, and if they breach that trust and confidence, they're susceptible to more publicity on a case," Torres said.
He added, "If accused of this, it destroys their careers."
Steven Comstock, president of the Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association, said the district doesn’t have a set policy on how teachers should interact with students on social media, but it is discouraged.
When he was trained as a union representative, however, Comstock said a California Teachers Association attorney delivered a presentation on the matter. The message? “Tell your teachers not to communicate with parents, and especially students, on social media platforms. It’s just a bad idea,” Comstock said.
When Comstock was an elementary school teacher, he took it a step further. He told his students that if they ran across him on Facebook and friend-requested him, he would immediately turn them in for violating the website’s terms and conditions, which require users to be at least 13 years old.
“I think some teachers are afraid to take that kind of a stance with their students because it would ruin a positive relationship,” Comstock said, explaining the balance teachers need to strike with students in a world where social media is everywhere. “Sometimes it breeds too much familiarity. We have to remember, we’re the professionals in the room.”