Schools Face Vexing Test: Which Kids Will Sexually Attack?

Christopher Lee looks through a window secured by bars towards a barbed wire fence at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in St. Peter, Minn. Lee has been locked up in the program since 2005, four days before he turned 19.
Christopher Lee looks through a window secured by bars towards a barbed wire fence at the Minnesota Sex Offender Program in St. Peter, Minn. Lee has been locked up in the program since 2005, four days before he turned 19.
—Jim Mone/AP
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The children who sexually assault other children may be the popular jocks, the loners, or anyone in between. There is no typical attacker, no way for schools to predict who might inflict that kind of torment on a classmate.

Thousands of school-age offenders are treated annually for sexual aggression in the United States, yet experts see no standard profile of personality, background, or motivation.

They say that while anti-social behavior can suggest a greater risk of offending, the cool kid may attack and the rebel may reform. Their reasons are rarely as straightforward as physical gratification and range from a sense of entitlement to desperation to fit in.

Though many sexual assaults aren't reported to authorities, research shows that about 95 percent of juvenile offenders who enter the justice system won't be arrested for another sex crime: The ordeal of facing police and parents scares many straight.

And with treatment and maturation, experts say, young abusers typically recover.

"It's not a lifelong trajectory," said Maia Christopher, executive director of the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers. "Children tend to be much more influenced by effective kinds of interventions than adults."

An ongoing Associated Press investigation has documented how K-12 schools in the United States can fail to protect students in their care from sexual assault, sometimes minimizing or even covering up incidents. Schools also struggle to help sexually aggressive students, both before and after they do lasting harm.

The leading research suggests the overwhelming majority of the nation's roughly 50 million K-12 students will never sexually attack a peer. For those who do, the juvenile justice system stresses second chances, and even unrepentant offenders don't forfeit their right to an education.

Back in class, privacy laws can mean teachers and peers do not know their pasts.

At Forest Hills Central High School in the suburbs of Grand Rapids, Michigan, Marques Mondy's basketball talent was obvious. The risk he presented was not.

After the Division I prospect pleaded guilty to assaulting a classmate in a darkened band room, a judge ordered him into adolescent sex offender treatment—for the second time. His first round was as a 4th grader, after he pleaded guilty to assaulting two 11-year-old girls, according to records AP obtained.

In mandatory counseling as a high school junior, Mondy insisted he did nothing wrong. The therapist saw no value in more sessions: Without that basic acknowledgement, treatment would not succeed.

Adults can play a huge role in rehabilitation, whether by pushing young offenders to confront reality or shielding them from responsibility.

As in 4th grade, Mondy's mom was fiercely protective.

"I hope race isn't a factor when determining who is telling the truth and who is lying," Nicole Scott, who is black, wrote a school district official on Christmas Day 2010. Her son's accusers were white.

Mondy, now 23, said he would call AP to discuss the high school assault. He never did.

"He didn't do the treatment he needed to do," said Vicki Seidl, the prosecutor who handled Mondy's juvenile cases. "If you can't admit you've done something wrong, you're never going to change behavior."

The toughest patients need support from all sides, according to one of the nation's pre-eminent juvenile sexual offender experts.

"The safest sex offender is somebody who is stable, occupied, accountable to others, and has a plan for the future," said therapist David Prescott, who has treated or assessed hundreds of sexually aggressive kids and now works in Maine for an alliance of nonprofit organizations.

Because children are constantly developing, experts say age is an important factor when it comes to the motivation for attacks. Feelings of control or entitlement might spur a high school student. A middle schooler could act on impulse and opportunity. Elementary students might not know they are violating boundaries.

Academic studies suggest that what might seem like two obvious risk factors—exposure to pornography and being the victim of sexual abuse—are far from certain triggers. Broader life instability, such as physically or psychologically abusive parents, appears to increase risk.

Experts have struggled to develop accurate ways to assess who will reoffend. Clues include a disregard for others' personal boundaries, or a tendency to fight and steal. Social isolation or pressure to be sexually active further elevates the risk, as do fantasies about forceful sex.

Since 2005, four days before he turned 19, Christopher Lee has been locked up in the Minnesota Sex Offender Program.

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Growing up, Lee said he desperately sought connections but was too needy to keep friends and became a target for bullying. He channeled his aggressions toward sex.

Minnesota officials civilly committed him for indefinite treatment after concluding he was likely to continue exposing himself to, masturbating in front of, or peeping on other children.

Inside the complex, he has learned the stories of many of the hundreds of other men confined with him. Some did it because they could, others because they were trying to deal with past trauma or because it made them feel powerful.

"The rhyme or reason as to why people offend," Lee said, "is infinite."

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