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School Climate & Safety

Band Teacher’s Abuse Scars Family, Splits Community

By Martha Irvine — October 22, 2007 9 min read
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They’ve learned to watch their older daughter for any sign that something’s wrong.

She cuts her long, blond hair and dyes it jet black. And they worry.

Her father picks up a book she’s been reading, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and skims it for clues. He notices a highlighted passage: “You forget some things, don’t you,” it reads. “Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.”

Her parents can relate. There’s a lot they’d like to forget, too—especially since the day nearly three years ago when their then-15-year-old daughter told them her elementary school band teacher had molested her and other girls.

A Lingering Shame
How Project Unfolded
Part I:
Sex Abuse a Shadow Over U.S. Schools
Calif. Rules Mask Details of Sex-Related Misconduct
Part II:
Band Teacher’s Abuse Scars Family, Splits Community
Gender Affects Response to Teacher-Student Sex
Part III:
Efforts to Curb Educator Sex Abuse Seen as Weak
Signs of Improper Sexual Interest From Educators
Schoolhouse Sex-Abuse Suspects Face Serial Accusations

The teacher, Robert Sperlik Jr., pleaded guilty last year to sexual abuse and kidnapping of more than 20 girls, some as young as 9. Among other things, he told prosecutors that he put rags in the girls’ mouths, taped them shut, and also bound their hands and feet with duct tape and rope for his own sexual stimulation.

According to court documents, he rubbed their inner thighs and shoulders and forced them to sit, while bound, in closets and school storage rooms. At least one girl told prosecutors that when Mr. Sperlik stood behind her, she could feel his erect penis on her back.

He pretended it was a game, gave the girls candy, and told them not to tell. And for a long time, none of them did.

A seven-month Associated Press investigation found stories like these are all too common. AP reporters in every state and the District of Columbia identified 2,570 teachers who were punished for sexual misconduct from 2001 to 2005 alone, for actions that ranged from fondling to viewing child pornography to rape.

Though experts who deal with sexual abuse say victims tell the truth more often than not, the ordeal is often worsened when the community around them is drawn in, and people take sides. Often, victims and their families face uncooperative administrators, disbelieving neighbors, and an agonizing legal journey.

‘Silent Epidemic’

This family in Berwyn, Ill., a suburb west of Chicago, understands the emotional toll.

“It’s a silent epidemic is what it is,” the girl’s father says. “People are protecting people who aren’t worth protecting. I hope our daughters will have that instilled in them, too—that you report what you know.”

The parents of a girl who was molested in elementary school by her band teacher hold hands in their living room with a portrait of their daughter nearby on Sept. 6, in Berwyn, Ill. The teacher, Robert Sperlik Jr. pleaded guilty last year to sexual abuse and kidnapping more that 20 girls.

The couple, a telecommunications technician and a stay-at-home mom, spoke on the condition that they and their daughter not be identified, so she can try to move on from the nightmare that began in the late 1990s.

They want to share their story to encourage anyone being abused by an educator to come forward. They also hope school officials will do more to get abusive teachers out of classrooms.

“I thought my children were safest in school,” the girl’s mother says. She shakes her head. As a child, she went to Pershing Elementary School, the same school her two daughters attended and one of several in Berwyn, where Mr. Sperlik taught band for 18 years. “I don’t trust anybody now.”

Her daughter was a 4th grader when Mr. Sperlik began teaching her how to play the clarinet. She liked him. He said nice things about her and played funny games during class, including letting students draw lips on duct tape and put it on their mouths.

Eventually, though, she and two of her friends started to feel uncomfortable with what they described as increasingly creepy behavior. After attending a school seminar about inappropriate touching in 2001, they took a piece of paper and wrote a note to the woman who spoke to them.

He “rubs our leg sometimes, rubs our back to feel for a bra,” the girl, then age 11, wrote for herself and her friends. “He comments [to] me about my hair and how nice it looks when it’s down, comments to [another female student] on how she dresses and that she should be a model.”

They asked the woman not to say anything and, if she did, not to mention their names. “We are afraid to tell our parents,” the girl wrote in the note, which eventually made its way to Karen Grindle, the principal at Pershing.

Principal Reassures Parents

The girls thought it was enough to flag an adult’s attention without having to be too explicit.

Ms. Grindle, according to court documents, spoke to the children individually and to some of their parents, though she didn’t show the letter to the parents. She told them that their daughters felt uncomfortable with the band teacher—that she had spoken to Mr. Sperlik, that he explained that he was only correcting their posture and tapping them on the knee to help them keep a beat.

The parents felt reassured. “She told me she had my daughter’s self-interest at heart. That made me feel good,” the mom says.

Sperlik, a former elementary school band teacher, pleaded guilty in 2006 to sexual abuse and kidnapping of more than 20 girls, some as young as age 9.

Later in court, however, the girls claimed they had privately told Ms. Grindle that Mr. Sperlik touched them in their groin area. Ms. Grindle insisted that never happened.

Given her findings, she made no report to police or child protective services. She did, however, tell Mr. Sperlik not to touch his students for any reason.

Ms. Grindle, who was later cleared of criminal charges for not reporting Mr. Sperlik, did not respond to a request for an interview. Nor did Mr. Sperlik, by way of his attorney.

William Jordan, the district’s superintendent at the time of the abuse, said he could not comment, citing the victims’ civil suit against him, other school officials, and Mr. Sperlik.

“It’s important to look at what the school failed to do,” says Mark Loevy-Reyes, a Chicago attorney who represents some of the families, including the one profiled in this story . He claims that Mr. Sperlik’s behavior came to the attention of school officials on various occasions. “I think it’s easy for school districts to turn a blind eye to it, unless they know they can be held accountable.”

Story Comes Out

In 2001, when the parents initially asked their daughter to tell them what happened, she didn’t want to talk about it. So they stopped asking.

The daughter never planned to bring it up again. But four years later, she overheard a conversation her mom was having with her younger sister, an 8th grader whose friend had been dancing provocatively in front of adults.

Her mother explained that it wasn’t appropriate. And when the younger daughter protested the lecture, her older sister had to say something.

“You know what, you need to listen to Mom because of what happened to me with that weirdo band teacher,” the elder daughter said, opening the door to her long-kept secret.

It was the first time her mother heard anything about duct tape. “What did you say? What do you mean? How did he tape you?” her stunned mother asked, grabbing a kitchen chair and cellophane tape so her daughter could show her.

Her daughter started sobbing and the mother stopped, realizing how much the questions were upsetting her.

“This is not your fault,” her mom said, tears streaming down her face, too. “I never knew. I didn’t know.”

When the girl’s father came home and heard the story, he immediately went to the police, even though it was late. “At that moment, as a father, as a man, I needed to go to the proper authorities,” he says, his face reddening as he remembers that cold night in January 2005. “I couldn’t sleep through the night without taking matters into my own hands.”

Their daughter gave police the names of the two other girls, whom police interviewed separately. Eventually, other young women came forward, some saying that they hadn’t realized what Mr. Sperlik was doing was sexual until they were older.

Community Incredulous

Many in the community didn’t want to believe it. To them, Mr. Sperlik was an awkward but generally well-liked bachelor and accomplished drummer who related to his students better than other adults.

“I’ve always known Bob’s a little socially inept,” says Michelle Nafziger, a mother who went to high school with Mr. Sperlik. Her five children also had him for band.

Her daughter was among a group of high school musicians that Mr. Sperlik hand-picked for a jazz group called Take 10, which practiced at his home. None of them were among his accusers.

Ms. Nafziger remembers how Mr. Sperlik had a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” poster hanging in his home. He also took part in what she thought were harmless band pranks, including duct-taping students and taking photos of it. “He was like a big child,” Ms. Nafziger says.

After he accepted a 20-year prison sentence in a plea deal, she said Mr. Sperlik wrote a letter to some of his older, former students, a few of whom visited him behind bars. Mr. Sperlik told them he still did not think he was guilty, Ms. Nafziger said. But he apologized to them.

“He’s obviously disturbed. Now I could see that these weren’t innocent [duct-] taping things. I could see that he was getting sexual gratification out of that, which is terrible and should not have been allowed,” she says. “But I don’t know. It left us all feeling really weird.”

Dominic Tarullo, a parent whose four children had Mr. Sperlik for band, suspects Berwyn’s history of political corruption somehow played a role in getting Mr. Sperlik to accept a plea deal without a fight. “I know him as a real honest, good guy,” says Mr. Tarullo, who speculates that Mr. Sperlik wanted to save his elderly parents the embarrassment of a trial. “I just cannot imagine that he was abusing kids.”

He’s not the only one. Immediately after news of Mr. Sperlik’s arrest hit in January 2005, people began questioning the girls’ motives: Why didn’t they come forward sooner? Were they really telling the truth?

Some think their parents simply want money from a lawsuit. The latter accusation is perhaps the most hurtful.

“How dare you?” says the mother of the first family to step forward. “Why would I put my children in harm’s way, throw them in front of a bus? Come on!”

Victim Hospitalized

Read more about this series, “A Lingering Shame: Sexual Abuse of Students by School Employees.” The collection includes a new Associated Press series on the issue, as well as special Education Week coverage.

It was almost too much for the girl, who never anticipated such harsh public scrutiny. For a time, she was cutting herself on her arms and ankles, a ritual that is often associated with victims of sexual abuse.

Her parents also had her admitted to a psychiatric hospital after she took sleeping pills last year. She was upset that Mr. Sperlik hadn’t gotten more prison time. “I just can’t take it anymore,” she wrote in a note to her parents.

After she came home, they found a counselor who specializes in sexual abuse. It’s been helping, they say. And lately, their daughter has been more angry than depressed, showing some fight.

In the spring, she graduated from a private high school. Now, she has started college in central Illinois and a new chapter away from her troubles in Berwyn.

She’s also let her hair grow out and no longer dyes it black. For the first time in a long time, her parents are hopeful, though nagging guilt and anger persist.

Her mother still has dreams about going to the school to confront the principal about why she didn’t do more. Her father thinks about the day his daughter marries and has kids of her own, how he’ll have to resist the urge to park outside her house to watch over them.

“Our kids were like babies still. That’s what makes it so hard because they were so innocent,” he says.

He rubs his face, as his eyes well up. “All these kids, I feel sorry for all of them, not just my own. We’re not the only ones suffering in this. There’s a lot of people suffering in this.”

Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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