Watch the CBS Reports documentary "Pledge of Silence" in the video player above.
Joel Koonce was hired by Southern California's Redlands High School in 2016 after he was fired from a Texas summer camp. He allegedly told students it was because he had sex with a girl who was underage. But his record at the time was clean. Within a year, police records show a Redlands school janitor called the police, reporting Koonce for suspicions of sexual abuse against students.
The school quietly put him on leave and let his contract expire, but he remained in touch with students. In 2018, Koonce invited two of them to his home where he offered the 16-year-olds alcohol and drugs, according to court filings and interviews with one of his victims.
"We sat down on the bed and he just started kissing us and one thing led to another. We started having sex," the former student told CBS News, speaking on condition of anonymity. She added that she and her friend were so drunk at the time they could barely stand.
Koonce made a sex tape — evidence police used to arrest him later that year. But before they did, he had already started working as a substitute teacher in a nearby school district.
Koonce eventually pleaded no contest to 16 felony counts of sex crimes against children and was incarcerated in 2020.
"It's called passing the trash," said Morgan Stewart, an attorney representing students who have accused teachers of sexual abuse at Redlands Unified District schools. "They'd give them recommendations, they'd give them approvals. You've got this culture that just allows it to happen again and again."
This practice is repeated in schools across the United States, risking harm to millions of children, according to experts and federal officials. On average, one offender passes through three different school districts before being stopped, and can abuse as many as 73 children in their lifetime, according to a 2010 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
An investigation by CBS Reports has found that little is being done to hold public school districts accountable. Systemwide oversight failures at the local, state and federal levels have enabled the sexual abuse of children in American schools to persist with virtually no monitoring of such incidents.
"This is a phenomenon of child abuse that we allow to happen under our noses," said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights at the federal Department of Education. "It's something that we've known conclusively for decades but we have insufficient collective will as a country to stop it."
Failing to report reasonable suspicion of sexual abuse is a crime, yet federal officials and experts told CBS they believe school administrators often do not contact authorities for fear of damaging the reputation of a teacher or the school. And teachers told CBS they observed a culture that discouraged reporting suspicions of misconduct in their schools.
No state or national databases exist to track incidents, so authorities don't have hard data on where abuse is happening or how pervasive the problem is, which enables the abuse to continue, according to federal officials and national experts.
A Department of Education report released at the beginning of May showed that students in the fiscal year 2022 reported the highest volume of discrimination and sexual harassment complaints in the history of the department's Office for Civil Rights. The report, however, does not differentiate between students who report being harassed by other students and students who report being harassed by educators.
According to a review of court records, sworn testimony, police case files and interviews with former students and teachers, school administrators in Redlands repeatedly dismissed reports of child sexual abuse as mere rumors for years. In some cases, they were concerned enough that they pushed some alleged student victims to switch schools without notifying their parents, and pressured suspected abusers to move to other districts. Even then, administrators frequently didn't report the allegations to authorities.
However, in one case when they did report in 2013, local police said they witnessed a Redlands school official deleting evidence that indicated the district may have known a teacher sexually abused students. The official denied the allegation.
No law enforcement agency at the Redlands city, county, state or federal levels has taken primary responsibility for policing the problem of abuse.
While the California Attorney General's office does have a division specifically tasked with identifying and correcting "systemic failures and/or severe, widespread harm against children served by a local public entity," including sexual abuse in schools, the Attorney General's press office refused to name or say how many employees are actively assigned to the unit. When pressed by CBS Reports, it could not identify a single case it has filed related to sexual abuse in public schools.
Redlands has been facing a slew of lawsuits. In 23 lawsuits filed over the past decade, more than 50 Redlands students have sued their former school over alleged sexual abuse. With no admission of guilt, Redlands Unified has paid out more than $41 million in settlements over the past 10 years to former students who claimed teachers sexually abused them.
Nine more lawsuits are ongoing, with a trial for one case scheduled to begin in May.
"The district is not in a position to comment as to any of the litigation allegations," said Christine Stephens, public information officer for the Redlands Unified School District.
She did note, however, that "most of the acts" involved in the lawsuits took place between 1995 and 2016, and said "the administration has taken swift and appropriate actions when there has been a violation of law or board policy." The district implemented new policies in 2018.
No one in the Redlands Unified School District administration has faced any charges or lost their jobs or credentials over their handling of teacher sexual abuse allegations.
Sarah Metz, Sharaf Mowjood and Meg Oliver contributed reporting.
Educators can receive free online training on how to prevent school employee sexual misconduct through a CDC-funded study by the Schools of Education and Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University. For information contact Dr. Charol Shakeshaft at 804-752-2413 or email@example.com.
for more features.