Child sex-abuse cases under-reported, often ignored

Oregon recently passed a law that could make it easier to recognize sexual misconduct. The law, cited as a model, could stop abuse in its early stages. Recent changes in Oregon law were made because of the Sandusky case, officials said.

Posted: Saturday, June 2, 2012 12:15 am | Updated: 4:46 pm, Sat Jun 2, 2012 by The TimesOnline

By Bill Heltzel and Halle Stockton PublicSource

A ninth-grade boy at Pittsburgh’s Vincentian High School had a secret. He’d changed a grade on his report card, but soon his basketball coach discovered the deceit. For weeks, the coach summoned him from gym class and the cafeteria to his office, where he prodded: What would the boy do for the coach to keep the secret?

Finally, the coach, according to court documents, gave the boy three choices: Masturbate in front of the coach, stand on his head and pee or get paddled with a plank. He chose the beating. The coach stood the boy against a chalkboard, splayed his legs, and hit him with a 2-by-4. The coach then pulled down the boy’s pants to see the welts.

When the boy and his parents told school officials what happened, the principal doubted the story, but offered to change the boy’s schedule to avoid the coach’s English class.

“That’s what her offer was, and I’m like, ‘No, I’m not going to do that,’” the boy later told police about the 1995 incident with coach David Scott Zimmerman, then 28. “I’m leaving school. I can’t take this anymore.”

The Vincentian principal dropped her inquiry and Zimmerman continued to coach and teach.

The issues in the Zimmerman case are fresh more than a decade later as the June 5 trial of former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky approaches. Sandusky was indicted in November on 52 counts of criminal abuse. He is charged with molesting 10 boys over 15 years.

The Sandusky case became a national cause célèbre and triggered widespread debate on how to protect children from sexual predators.

The attention brought by the Sandusky case will pass. The problem of sexual abuse in schools will not.

David Scott Zimmerman’s case is a cautionary tale about what happens when certain patterns of behavior are not recognized and reported.

Another boy described abusive sexual conduct by Zimmerman to school officials — three years after the 1995 incident involving the first boy. Vincentian officials immediately suspended Zimmerman, notified police and the county prosecutor, and started their own investigation. Ultimately, 13 boys told police of sexual behavior by Zimmerman. This time, a public scandal engulfed the Catholic high school.

Court proceedings show that the school made a deal with Zimmerman to keep quiet about his dismissal if he absolved the school of liability. He also kept his teaching license.

A proposed Pennsylvania law would make confidential deals like the one between Zimmerman and Vincentian impossible. Other states have already acted. Oregon recently passed a law that could make it easier to recognize sexual misconduct. The law, cited as a model, could stop abuse in its early stages. Recent changes in Oregon law were made because of the Sandusky case, officials said.

As policymakers consider a response, teachers, parents and students can be alert to recognize classic “grooming” patterns that are precursors to the sexual abuse of children. Another effective step, experts say, is to ban the practice of “passing the trash,” a phrase that describes when a suspected school employee is allowed to resign quietly and without consequences.

“You can stop a lot of this behavior,” said Charol Shakeshaft, an education professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies sexual abuse.

One of every 10 students becomes a target of sexual misconduct that includes such behavior as unwanted sexual comments, inappropriate touching, and even rape, Shakeshaft said.

Yet only about 6 percent of child sexual-abuse cases are reported to authorities, and teachers are seldom punished when caught, according to her 2004 report for the U.S. Department of Education.

Nightmares and Silence

One boy who played for Zimmerman never played organized sports again. Even in college he suffered from nightmares. In one, he told police in 1999, Zimmerman “had this ball and it was like full of razor blades and he kept throwing it at me, trying to get me.”

The details of Zimmerman’s actions come from criminal and civil documents filed in the Allegheny County courts over the years. PublicSource does not name the victims of sexual crimes.

Zimmerman inherited a team with a 45-game losing streak when he was hired in 1993, and went on to compile a 78-48 record and take the Vincentian Royals to the regional Class A championship in 1998.

He insisted on a code of silence with the team. Boys were told, “What happens at practice, stays at practice,” according to court documents.

Zimmerman, called “Zim” by students, was forced to resign from Vincentian in 1998. According to court documents, he:

• Used explicit language, and goaded players into calling a freshman the “team slut,” a “fag” and other sexually derogatory terms;

• Took boys out of study hall to his office and peppered them with questions about their sex lives;

• Encouraged boys to slap each other’s testicles, an initiation rite referred to as “duping”;

• Showed boys adult pornography at his Pittsburgh apartment;

• Pushed a boy’s head into the groin of another player as Zimmerman squeezed water from a bottle to simulate ejaculation, and forced a player to lick cupcake icing off his finger;

* Rested a hand on a boy’s penis while going to sleep in a dorm room at a basketball camp.

In 1990, Zimmerman had cleared mandatory child abuse and criminal background checks — as all Pennsylvania teachers must — from the Department of Welfare, state police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. By the time Vincentian hired him, he had substituted or coached for at least five other schools. The Vincentian principal said in a deposition that Zimmerman’s references and prior employers were not contacted.

Zimmerman denied abuse allegations when police interviewed him in January 1999. He said he engaged in horseplay with players and conceded that he could have supervised them better. The Allegheny County District Attorney dropped a simple assault charge, and Zimmerman pleaded guilty to corruption of minors, a misdemeanor. He was put on probation for a year and ordered not to work with children.

As a result of the Vincentian players’ allegations, police searched Zimmerman’s Pittsburgh apartment. They found hundreds of images of child erotica, computer-generated images of boys engaged in sexual activity, and catalogs offering videotapes of teenage boys engaged in sex. He pleaded guilty in federal court to possession of child pornography, but the case was overturned on appeal because of an improper search warrant.

When PublicSource called the home listed in records as Zimmerman’s address, a man who identified himself as Zimmerman’s brother said he would convey a request for an interview. Zimmerman did not return two telephone calls.

PublicSource also sent a letter to Zimmerman’s address asking for an interview. There was no response.

Defense attorney Robert Mielnicki described his client as immature. “He was in his late 20s and was hanging around with 18-year-olds” and “was acting like an 18-year-old,” Mielnicki said.

In 2008, Zimmerman, then 41, was arrested in Harmar Township and charged with sexual assault of a 20-year-old man he had met that day. On the day of his trial, an assistant district attorney dropped four felonies and added a misdemeanor assault charge. Zimmerman pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 12 months’ probation.

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