Records show a pattern of missed red flags and ignored complaints from students
The charismatic band teacher charmed students and parents alike. He won music competitions and teaching honors. He worked late, coached volleyball and mentored kids.
No one realized Joseph Billera, then 30, was having sex with children.
Yet there were warning signs for years that the popular Salem-Keizer teacher preyed on his Houck Middle School students.
School officials verbally reprimanded Billera after spotting him at a band contest in 2000 with a girl sitting on his lap, a blanket wrapped around them. In 2001, parent Robert Ogan complained to administrators after seeing Billera alone with a female student at a community softball game. Later, Ogan alerted the school’s principal after knocking on the door of Billera’s dark, locked band room one evening to be greeted by a middle school girl.
Three years passed before Billera was arrested and convicted for raping two students and molesting two others. Three of his victims were younger than 14. He assaulted one of them after the 2001 complaints.
Billera is one of 129 Oregon educators disciplined for molesting or having sexual relations with more than 215 public school children over the past 10 years.
An examination of those cases by The Oregonian, combined with hundreds of interviews and thousands of pages of documents obtained under state public records law, shows that state and local officials repeatedly missed opportunities to protect students. The Oregonian tracked a 10-year period – 1997 to 2007 – because such cases take years to wind through the state’s teacher discipline system.
Records show that school leaders missed red flags or ignored complaints from parents, students and staff, allowing some educators to engage in years of sexual misconduct, ranging from inappropriate touching to rape.
The documents reveal that many school administrators concealed alleged sexual misconduct from hiring districts, allowing educators to resign and move on to jobs elsewhere working with children.
The Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, Oregon’s teacher licensing board, faces a growing backlog of nearly 300 complaints against teachers, ranging from stealing school property to showing up to class drunk. The agency now requires an average of nearly 16 months, and as long as three years, to discipline teachers.
Between 1997 and 2007, 767 cases of misconduct involving Oregon educators ranged from minor infractions to criminal behavior. Although those who sexually exploit students are a tiny fraction of the 35,000 educators who teach, mentor and coach in Oregon public schools, sexual misconduct with a child ranked as the most common reason the state disciplined an educator.
The commission has an additional mission to rehabilitate problem teachers, and it gives second chances to those who have admitted to sex-related offenses, such as propositioning students for sex, videotaping students’ underwear or watching pornography at school.
Billera – who pleaded guilty to 10 counts of rape, sodomy and sex abuse in 2004 – will be locked away in the Umatilla state prison until at least 2016. But the girls he abused will wrestle with mistrust and guilt for the rest of their lives, said one victim’s mother. The Oregonian typically does not identify sexual abuse victims.
"That shame gets in them," the mother said. "My daughter said she is going to take it to the grave with her."
After Billera’s arrest, Salem-Keizer Public Schools leaders pledged to confront sexual misconduct in the classroom, launching new policies and training programs to spot and remove harmful educators, creating what one expert calls one of the best sex abuse prevention programs in the nation.
Without such training, parents and school staff did not recognize Billera’s behaviors as warning signs of a child molester, said Kay Baker, then superintendent.
"This was a call to action," she said.
Slow to detect and act
In at least a dozen cases in five years, teachers later convicted of sexual misconduct with a student were left unchecked by local school officials, who failed to investigate early complaints, do adequate reference checks or were lax about stopping problem behavior, The Oregonian found.
In some instances, principals or teachers did not believe student reports. In others, administrators reprimanded teachers for sexual misconduct but allowed them to keep teaching.
In Forest Grove, students and staff started complaining about Thomas Ray Iverson as early as 1996, two years after he was hired to teach music at several of the district’s schools.
Eventually, three students said Iverson molested them at Joseph Gale Elementary. One girl said he touched her breasts more than 10 times during private voice lessons when she was 12. Another said he rubbed her chest when she was 8.
The third student, who said Iverson grabbed her buttocks and rubbed her back under her shirt when she was 9, said she told two teachers about the abuse.
During Iverson’s trial in 2000, both teachers said they told their school principals about the allegations, but written complaints were not filed. In interviews with The Oregonian, Principal Al Rogers at Tom McCall Upper Elementary School said he did not consider the teacher statements to be a report of child abuse. Rebecca White, former principal at Joseph Gale, also said she never received formal complaints about Iverson’s conduct.
Police were not called until November 1999, when one of the victims reported Iverson to a Neil Armstrong Middle School counselor. Iverson was convicted in 2001 on nine counts of first-degree sexual abuse. He died of cancer last year while serving a 12½-year prison sentence.
The Iverson case illustrates other problems.
School officials in the Centennial School District told The Oregonian they knew he was dating students in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But this predated the adoption of state law and administrative rules that require educators, doctors and other professionals to report suspected abuse or neglect of a child to police and state agencies.
One of the girls Iverson became involved with, Angela Whitten, says she still has nightmares after her two-year involvement, which started when she was 15.
"I still blame myself," said Whitten, who agreed to be identified. "He should never have been working with children. But everyone turned a blind eye."
After Whitten, Iverson dated another Centennial student, Trisha Pavan, and married her after she dropped out of school during her sophomore year. After the wedding, Iverson taught for three more years before leaving Centennial to pursue a doctorate in Arizona.
Interviewed for this story, Pavan said she never believed Iverson did anything wrong. The couple had two children and divorced in 1993. "I don’t feel as though there was anything inappropriate," she said.
Minnie Richards, Centennial’s principal at the time, said Iverson was not confronted because parents never complained, including Pavan’s. But she also said that Forest Grove never called her for a reference check.
"I was never contacted about him when he went there," Richards said. "If Forest Grove called, I would not distort the past."
Jack Musser, Forest Grove superintendent since 1999, said he wasn’t working in the district when Iverson was hired and couldn’t find any written evidence of a reference check. The case prompted the district to adopt a policy requiring potential employees to have a record of a reference check kept in their personnel files. In addition, all complaints of abuse must now be in writing.
"One of the lessons we learned is that if you hear a complaint but you aren’t sure if you should report it, you report it anyhow," Musser said.
Robert Shoop, author of the book "Sexual Exploitation in Schools," said school officials frequently fail to recognize signs of teachers abusing their students.
"If a person has been caught only once," Shoop said, it probably "means there’s a whole path of (victims) behind them. And that there were probably red flags along the way."
The Billera case in Salem spurred a 2007 Oregon law requiring all districts to educate their staffs about child abuse and to make training available to parents and students. The law, however, doesn’t specify how much training or require districts to tackle issues of educator sexual abuse.
"It is too general," said Cory Jewell Jensen, co-director of a Beaverton sex offender therapy center. "There isn’t a curriculum."
On a recent January evening, Detective Tyler Chapman told a class of 17 Salem-area parents that people who molest children can be pillars of the community – political leaders, pastors, teachers.
"Nobody is above suspicion," the Marion County sheriff’s detective said.
He spoke at Houck Middle School, where Billera molested students for six years. Chapman is part of the coalition of agencies that has helped Salem schools provide sex abuse training to parents, reaching more than 1,000 residents.
Also in the classroom was Debbie Joa, a full-time child protection coordinator who handles ongoing background checks and mandatory annual training of all staff in Salem schools. The district also has given teachers guidelines on private interaction with students and has adopted a clearer protocol for documenting and responding to complaints.
"If every district in the state would do what Salem did," Jensen said, "I think we would cut child sex abuse in half."
Gray areas persist
Even vigilant districts sometimes are unable to remove educators suspected of abusing children because they lack proof.
"The difficulty of most of these cases is they happen in secret," said John Minnis, who worked as a detective for 11 years with the Portland Police Bureau and now heads the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, which certifies and disciplines police.
Many investigations boil down to weighing the word of an educator against that of the victim. Some victims refuse to talk. And administrators know a false accusation can invite a lawsuit and ruin a teacher’s career.
McMinnville school officials immediately took action in October 2001 on a complaint that Kevin Michael Kayfes, a math teacher at Duniway Middle School, may have had sexual contact with a girl when she was 14 years old.
According to school records, administrators placed Kayfes on leave, called police and notified the state teachers commission. But both police and a commission investigator concluded there was insufficient evidence to substantiate the claim.
Kayfes, 30 at the time, returned to teaching at the school. But his relationship with the girl, a former student in his eighth-grade class, continued. She frequently visited his house, telling her mother she was being tutored or was baby-sitting.
In February 2002, administrators again reprimanded Kayfes for "continued association with this student." By that time, Kayfes and the student had been having sexual contact for nearly a year, according to court documents.
The girl’s mother, at first grateful for the teacher’s attentions toward her troubled daughter, later gave authorities the needed evidence.
On Jan. 1, 2003, the mother attached a recorder to her phone and documented her daughter telling Kayfes, "Do you realize that there is not a piece of furniture in your house that I haven’t had sex with you on?"
Two weeks later, when Kayfes learned authorities were closing in, he attempted suicide by swallowing 200 aspirin, according to court documents. The girl followed, ingesting a bottle of ibuprofen. Both ended up in the same emergency room.
During Kayfes’ August 2004 trial, his victim recanted everything she had told police, refused to testify and was jailed as a juvenile for contempt of court. Kayfes was convicted on three counts each of third-degree rape, third-degree sodomy and third-degree sexual abuse.
The case illuminates the importance of educating parents, said Maryalice Russell, McMinnville’s superintendent.
"Parents need to understand grooming behaviors," Russell said. "If an adult is spending too much time with their child, they need to recognize that’s a problem."
Most cases of educator sexual misconduct don’t end in a criminal conviction, The Oregonian’s investigation found. Between 1997 and 2007, 58 teachers were convicted of a crime related to sexual misconduct with a child. An additional 71 who admitted to sexual misconduct were either not charged or never convicted.
In many of those cases, the victims were at or near 18, the legal age of consent. Then, the relationship no longer constitutes a crime. But a teacher having an intimate relationship with a student, regardless of age, violates state rules enforced by the Teacher Standards and Practices Commission.
In a case involving a developmentally disabled Forest Grove High School student, her special education teacher started having sex with her after she turned 18. The state revoked his license, but he was not charged with a crime because of her age.
She attempted suicide after the two-year relationship ended and has struggled since with forming intimate relationships.
"He would say I was his favorite," the woman, now 27, said. "I was always his favorite. Every time I think about it, I feel like a victim all over again. Can there ever be justice?"
Amy Hsuan: 503-294-5137; firstname.lastname@example.org