Friday, February 24, 2012

The Miramonte Elementary School Scandal and the Psychology of Paraphillias

by Gina Simmons, Ph.D.

A dark cloud hangs over a Los Angeles Elementary School after two long-term teachers were arrested on allegations of lewd acts on children under the age of 14. Miramonte Elementary, educates low-income, mostly Latino youth, and ranks at the bottom in achievement for schools in its comparison group. When a film processor notified authorities about strange photos of blindfolded children with tape over their mouths, Miramonte Elementary hit a new bottom.

Veteran teacher, Mark Berndt, allegedly masturbated in the classroom, placed his semen on a spoon and fed it to blindfolded children in a "tasting game." Photos of children with the milky substance near their mouths alerted the film processor and stemmed a nearly year long investigation. Investigators allegedly found a blue plastic spoon with semen on it in a trash container at the school along with hundreds of photos of children.

Disturbing as the allegations are, the story gets sicker. Investigators arrested another suspected Miramonte teacher, Martin Springer for lewd acts on young children. He and Berndt were apparently friends. Two teachers aides also came under suspicion at the school. One was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2005 for lewd acts on children in cases going back as far as 1995. Another teacher's aide wrote a love letter to an elementary school child. The mother of that child complained to school authorities and was allegedly rebuffed. Students who reported the strange sexual behavior were allegedly told to "stop making things up."

In reaction to these disturbing allegations, Los Angeles Unified School District administrators removed the entire staff of Miramonte school and replaced them with new people. They provided counselors for each classroom, as the investigation and interviews of students and staff continues. Some Miramonte parents have spoken in protest of the removal of teachers beloved by their students. An atmosphere of anger and distrust, mixed with poverty and powerlessness, likely creates a toxic environment for learning. Those with immigration issues may have felt more powerless to report abuses to authorities.

How Did They Get Away With It For Decades?

Pedophiles, those with a sexual attraction to children, are a sneaky bunch. They know that children don't understand sexuality and cannot talk about it intelligently. They know that most people don't want to believe sexual exploitation of children exists in their neighborhood, school, house, backyard, or office. So it's easy for them to hide in plain sight.

I once worked with a boy who was molested by his grandfather, while sitting on Grandpa's lap, at the computer, with his parents sitting a few feet away in the same room. When I worked in residential treatment with a group of pedophiles, I learned that they can engage in sexual activity, with one hand under the table, while eating dinner. The other diners, unless they have x-ray vision, won't see or suspect a thing. Psychologists call this "perceptual set" which prompts us to see what we expect based on our emotional needs. If your basic need is food, you'll focus more on the spaghetti and meatballs on the table.

The Psychology of Paraphilias

Besides being sneaky and immature, pedophiles can become fixated on specific objects, rituals or behaviors that stimulate them sexually. Called paraphilias, these fixations can become the primary way the individual finds sexual satisfaction. Besides pedophilia, other paraphilias, like frotteurism (touching and rubbing against people against their will) or voyeurism (watching the private activity of others without their consent or knowledge) have a hostile component. The prowling perpetrator gets a power rush by sexually exploiting someone without their knowledge or consent.

Pedophiles often reveal a history of childhood trauma and sexual victimization. When they molest children, they psychologically reenact the abuse, bringing it under their own control. Recent neuroscience research finds abnormalities of the brain in the early development of pedophiles. They show a decrease in the volume of gray brain matter in the central striatum which impacts their emotions and behavior. In addition they show abnormalities in the frontal and central regions of the brain. These parts of the brain control the ability to practice restraint, use good judgment and apply reason to their behavior. These folks are sick and it shows in their brain scans.

What Can We Do About it?

Pedophilia is not curable. Those who enter treatment with a desire to get better usually need lifelong therapy and medication. Usually they are given antidepressants to reduce the drive to molest, in addition to hormonal medication to reduce the sex drive. Our best defense for our children is to pay attention. Ask the school their policy on reporting possible offenses. Do they screen employees. How do they handle complaints? Teach your children about these people so that they know what to do when an adult asks something of them that feels creepy or weird. Encourage your children to speak up when something feels wrong to them. Blindly obedient children make easy victims. Finally, try to stay involved in your child's school, and get to know the teacher. Your visibility and observing eyes can act as an inhibiting factor for a molester.

Photos courtesy of CBS News and Willibys-corruptjustice.


Thomas Pluck said...

There is another solution, contain the predator.

DrGina said...

Yes we hope to contain these predators by catching, prosecuting and convicting them. In the mean time our awareness and attention can go a long way toward prevention.

Kelly R said...

These are excellent suggestions for parents. Empowering your children with knowledge, and being present in their lives, knowing who they know. It is impossible to remove these sick people from society (which is stunning in view of the physical proof of brain scans!), so we must be the protector of our children, and often someone else's too. Most people are too busy thinking of themselves to listen to a child. Great article.

DrGina said...

Thanks for your comment Kelly. Monitoring our children, teaching them good safety tips and knowing who they know helps parents protect their children. Even though we see differences in the brains of those who offend, there are some serious ethical problems with using brain abnormalities to imprison people who have not yet offended.

DrGina said...

Thank you Kelly. Good advice for parents to stay connected, aware and keep good communication with children. Unfortunately brain science can't predict with 100% certainty whether or not an individual will commit a crime. However, we do know that these predators have neurological defects. Hopefully future scientists can find appropriate remedies for some of these damaged people.