Schools foster sexual abuse awareness

CNJ staff photo: Liliana Castillo Clovis Municipal Schools has implemented a sexual abuse awareness program over the last five years following the unrelated arrests and convictions of two local teachers in sexual abuse cases.

By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer

Education and open lines of communication are key to keeping children safe from sexual predators in schools, according to local officials.

Prompted by the arrests of two local teachers in unrelated sexual abuse cases a little more than five years ago, a two-prong sexual abuse awareness program was implemented, Clovis Municipal Schools Director of Health Services Rhonda Sparks said.

New employees attend a mandatory educational program that shows them how to look for clues of an abuser or victim and a common sense approach to avoiding false accusations.

A video-based program for students targets age-appropriate messages for kindergarten students and third-, fifth-, seventh- and 10th-graders.

Sparks said the programs help educators and students understand the dynamics of abuse and encourage communication and reporting of sexual misconduct.

In unrelated cases, Lloyd Sperry, 55, a Zia Elementary teacher, and Paul Duran, 42, a Yucca Junior High Band Director, were arrested in 2001 for sexual misconduct with students.

Both were convicted and are serving sentences in the New Mexico Penitentiary in Santa Fe.

“(In the past) the big push was on the screening process for employees (but now we know) there is no fullproof way to identify a pedophile unless they’re caught and convicted,” Sparks said.

The cases were a shock to local educators, prompting a change in approach, she said, and it necessitated a more proactive message and integrated awareness for students and employees.

Sparks said Clovis’ program has even been adopted by other school districts around the state.

Curry County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Sandy Loomis is involved with tracking sex offenders in the county and ensuring they are properly registered.

Loomis said sexual abuse is something the public needs to stay on top of.

There are 40 sex offenders in Curry County whose information is publicly releasable, Loomis said. There are 49 other offenders whose information is not made public by law.

Loomis said his office and other local law enforcement agencies work to maintain communication with the schools so there is an exchange of information.

“That stuff scares you to death,” he said. “When you see that, you do want anybody that could possibly be in harm’s way to be aware of it.”

Aside from listing offenders on a Web site, Loomis said his office shares offender information with schools, daycare centers and any other agencies that may deal with children so they know who and where offenders are.

Those partnerships, he believes, go a long way toward the safety of children.

Administrators have had to become more aware and educated, Clovis Municipal Schools Community Relations Director David Briseno said.

“We’ve made ourselves aware of the characteristics of (sexual offenders),” he said. “We’re blind to that sometimes because we’re focused on other things.”

Clovis schools has around 1,000 employees, about 600 of whom are teachers, Briseno said.

A combination of background checks for employment, sexual abuse education programs and decisive policies for reporting and action in the event of an allegation are critical to protecting children, he said.

If an employee is accused of sexual misconduct, Briseno said they are immediately removed from the school and put on administrative leave with pay pending an investigation.

“We certainly don’t want to hide anything and we don’t want any of our kids to be hurt in any way shape or form and we want to be able to react quickly when it happens, if it ever does,” he said.