In the wake of elementary school abuse scandal, district trains staff to recognize grooming behavior

Gladys Jung Elementary School on March 16, 2020 in Bethel, Alaska (Katie Basile/KYUK)

Months after former Bethel Elementary School Principal Chris Carmichael was arrested, and later charged with sexual abuse of a minor, the Lower Kuskokwim School District adopted a new training curriculum to prevent sexual abuse in schools, according to the district’s attorney. It’s aimed at identifying sexual grooming early, and stopping it before it escalates. The training, new to LKSD, is new to Alaska as well. 

The Association of Alaska School Boards introduced the Professional Boundaries Policy to Alaska school districts last November, which includes new sexual abuse prevention training. AASB Executive Director Norm Wooten said that in all of the sexual assault cases he’s seen, there are always warning signs if you know what to look for.

“Almost every single case, and I have read, literally, hundreds of them, people wondered about it,” Wooten said.

RELATED: A rural school district said it was blindsided by a Bethel principal’s arrest. Except he’d been investigated twice before.

The training identifies common grooming behaviors, which may look like a staff member favoring a particular student, giving gifts to a student, being alone with a student behind closed doors, roughhousing with students, or frequently messaging a particular student. It says that any kind of peer-to-peer behavior is inappropriate. Other examples include talking with a student about his or her personal problems to the extent that the adult becomes a confidant of the student. 

State charges against Carmichael describe him engaging in many of these grooming behaviors before his arrest. Parents noticed these, and some complained.

In 2016, the charges say that the mother of a fourteen-year-old girl “questioned why her child was receiving messages from a school administrator.” In 2018, when Carmichael was accused of touching a girl’s breast, charges state that a mother of an 11-year-old girl asked the principal why he was tickling children, and Carmichael said that he joked around and wrestled with kids. The charges also say that another mother of a young girl told investigators that Carmichael gifted their family a king-sized bed and paint.

State law mandates that school districts conduct trainings to identify warning signs of sexual abuse. Wooten said that the problem with the state-mandated training is that it is written in complex legal language. He said that the new training fixes that.

RELATED: Four girls now allege Bethel school principal abused them. They’re suing the school district for inaction.

“This policy, it’s not written in legalese. It’s not written in theoretical language,” Wooten said. “It’s written in plain layman’s language: ‘You see this type of behavior, then you need to pay attention to it.’”

LKSD attorney Donald Austin said that the district began conducting the new training in February. Austin is also a former teacher and school law expert who helped author the new professional boundaries training.

Austin has written that most sexual misconduct against students by educators can be prevented. In a presentation given at the 2016 School Law Practice Seminar, he wrote that 95% of school staff that sexually molest students “groom” them.

The groomer’s aim is to increasingly break down a child’s boundaries until the child drops his or her guard, which is when sexual abuse can occur. Austin’s research says that if schools can stop boundary invasions and grooming, they can prevent most sexual abuse in schools.

RELATED: Read more about the Carmichael investigation

Wooten said that sometimes the line between sexual grooming behavior and teachers trying to connect with their students can be unclear, but he said that it’s important for staff to report all questionable behavior and let a higher authority decide.

“I would rather be on the side of saying ‘You know, maybe I overreacted,’ than I would be to say, ‘I wish I’d have said something,’” Wooten said.

AASB’s training policy says that, aside from staff identifying and reporting grooming behavior, the key is for school administration to follow up. In cases where an educator is reported for inappropriate behavior but not criminally charged, Wooten acknowledged that it can be difficult for an administrator to decide how to proceed.

“If an administrator is having difficulty deciding about what to do, they need to immediately kick it upstairs to the next level of supervision,” Wooten said.

In Alaska, that includes law enforcement and the Professional Teaching Practices Commission, the state regulatory body for educators. 

Wooten says that it’s a school leader’s responsibility to keep children safe. He says that, at the very least, is what parents expect when they send their kids to school.