Kiesa Kay
Special to The Gardner News
Two years have passed since a well-known 2015 Teacher of the Year was arrested and charged with felony sexual relations with a student. Gardner Edgerton USD 231 continues to strive to raise awareness and protect students from harm.
“USD 231 provides both student and staff training related to a variety of areas, including sexual abuse,” said Ben Boothe, USD 231 director of community relations. “We continue to make student safety (physical, mental, emotional) our first and foremost priority.  We also work closely with various authority agencies (Gardner Police, Johnson County Sherriff’s Office, Johnson County Health and Environment, among others) to ensure we are utilizing the most current practices.”
Todd Burd, choir director and music teacher at Gardner Edgerton High School for 13 years, was well-known in the community. He had a promising resume, with performances with Kansas City’s Theater in the Park and English National Opera. He had survived a heroic struggle with Guillain Barre Syndrome, a rare autoimmune disease. In 2018, he pled no contest in Johnson County District Court to amended charges of felony sexual relations with a student. Burd, then 45, received a 34-month sentence for each of the two charges. He was ordered to serve 30 days in jail and to register as a sex offender, and he received three years’ probation.
“We want people to be aware that 90 percent of perpetrators are people the child knows,” said Sara Lissauer, director of development for Sunflower House Children’s Advocacy Center. “In fact, at Sunflower House, it’s more like 99 percent.”
One in every ten American children and teens has been sexually abused by the age of 18, according to Darkness to Light, Perpetrators often seek positions of trust, where they have access to children and teens.
Sometimes they strive to elicit sympathy, building relationship so that the teens and children will be reluctant to tell anyone, said Melanie Austin, vice president for development at Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault. MOCSA offers a free crisis line at 913-642-0233.
“Perpetrators work to gain trust and often are highly regarded in their communities,” Austin said. “They often don’t perceive themselves as perpetrators, or acknowledge the harm they do to others.”
Darkness to Light Stewards of Children programs on how to detect, prevent, and respond appropriately to child sexual abuse are offered for free in this area from Sunflower House and from MOCSA.
Two programs — Happy Bear, for preschoolers to second grade, and Think First, for older elementary school children — teach boundaries and body safety to children.
“We have been to all of the elementary schools to do Happy Bear and Think First programs,” Lissauer said. “We teach that no one has the right to hurt anybody else’s body. Children learn that they have the right to control their own bodies, and they do not need to keep secrets.”
These free programs reach 190 schools in Johnson and Wyandotte Counties. As children get older, risks continue, particularly with electronic interactions, and Sunflower House also offers an electronics safety program.
“It’s free, but we haven’t gotten into all the middle schools with e-safety yet,” Lissauer said. “We teach appropriate ways of using electronic devices, emphasizing that anything you send goes out of your control, and we encourage students who receive inappropriate texts or pictures to show them to a trusted adult.”
Perpetrators frequently groom teens by behaving in a friendly manner. Court records stated that Burd apparently sent online communications. USD 231 policy clearly states that teachers are discouraged from interacting with any students, present or future, in social media.
“It’s such a private crime, and people don’t want to talk about it,” Austin said. “Even if a child discloses, adults don’t want to believe them.”
Perpetrators can come from any profession, and their families and friends often express shock because the perpetrators seemed so nice in everyday life, she said. Sometimes the teen or child who is harmed is the only person who knows how ugly a perpetrator’s criminal behavior can be.
MOCSA offers free educational programs for high school students as well as middle school and elementary students, including programs on sexual harassment and bystander intervention. They offer the Darkness to Light Stewards of Children program for free. Austin estimated that MOCSA reached 22,000 to 24,000 middle and high school students annually.
“Things are changing as people learn to take these crimes more seriously,” Austin said.
Austin identified child sexual abuse as a public health crisis as well as a criminal concern.
“Prevention is part of being healthy, and we must do all we can to prevent violence against children and teens,” she said.
USD 231 offers the following policy for when a child or teen discloses abuse:
• Be calm and in control of your responses and emotions
• Listen
• Don’t react with disgust
• Validate the child’s feelings
• Be on eye level and remove barriers between you and the child
• Be supportive
• Reassure the child that you care for him/her and this doesn’t change those feelings
• Remember 80 percent of child abuse usually occurs at the hand of a parent and the child likely continues to love the parent
• Consult with a colleague or administrator while being respectful of confidentiality.
Teachers and school administrators are mandatory reporters, which means that they can be prosecuted for a misdemeanor for failure to report. The line for making reports is 1-800-922-5330.
Austin emphasized that the more joy and happiness a child can find in life, the more well-equipped that child will be if anything happens to them.
“Positive childhood experiences can help teens build resilience, helping them recover,” she said. “We can prevent child sexual abuse if we work together as an aware community.”