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Teacher-Student Sex Scandal Shakes Southern Nevada Town

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Becki Mouser said she felt confused when her coach and teacher at Pahrump Valley High School started making sexual advances toward her and she was afraid to tell him no.

She also felt sorry for the teacher, she said, because his marriage was on the rocks.

The teacher, Robert Worden, 25, puts a different spin on the relationship.

He said the 17-year-old girl seduced him and took advantage of him during a difficult time in his life. He contends that Mouser was well aware of what she was doing and that his role as her history teacher and basketball coach had nothing to do with it.

Stories like this are becoming familiar in this southern Nevada desert town of 15,000, not far from Las Vegas. At least two other teachers are suspected of having sex with students.

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A small group of parents is outraged at school officials and frustrated by state laws that make prosecution difficult.

It is not illegal for a teacher to have sex with a student in Nevada, and the age of sexual consent is 16. At 17, Becki Mouser was considered old enough to have a consensual relationship. And because she never said no, Worden didn’t break any laws.

“We were very, very upset about the fact that we couldn’t move forward and prosecute Worden,” said Nye County Dist. Atty. Robert Beckett. “Our hands were tied by the statutes.

“The feeling of our office is that a teacher is in a position of extreme responsibility and trust and that Mr. Worden breached that position of trust.”

School district officials and school board members have refused to comment on the cases to the media or include concerned parents on their meeting agendas.

Becki’s parents, Evert and Marie Mouser, are angry that school district officials have not contacted them about their daughter’s case.

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Evert Mouser said he has heard nothing from the school board.

“They will not return my phone calls, they will not talk to me,” he said.

On Feb. 1, Becki Mouser filed suit in U.S. District Court, accusing the Nye County School District, Assistant Superintendent Rod Pekarek, Principal Ron Eason and Worden of sexual harassment. Mouser contends the district and its officials failed to protect her from Worden. She asks for $500,000 in compensatory damages and $100,000 in punitive damages from each of the defendants.

Her lawsuit also asks that the district be required to implement policies protecting students from sexual harassment by their teachers.

The Mouser case is only the latest involving the school district. The Nye County Sheriff’s Department has interviewed more than 60 women whose stories span another teacher’s tenure of almost 20 years. One of those women, a 1994 graduate, contends that she told the teacher, Joseph Peterson, no, but he forced himself on her. She has agreed to testify against him.

Peterson, a business teacher and coach, is charged with two counts of sexual assault and one of digital penetration. His trial is scheduled to begin April 15.

Because of the limited laws, the statute of limitations in some cases, and the unwillingness of some women to testify, the district attorney has been unable to file any other charges against Peterson.

Peterson, 50, was suspended with pay a year ago pending the outcome of his trial.

Worden resigned in May and voluntarily gave up his teaching certificate after Becki Mouser reported him to the school and police.

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Peterson has not commented on the charges against him, but Worden admitted having sex with Mouser three times early this school year.

Another teacher, who left a few years ago, also is believed to have been intimate with at least two students in Pahrump.

One of them, Jeri Stark, said she was 16 when the teacher and coach first had sex with her. The two secretly dated during her final years at the high school and married in 1985 after she graduated, she said.

“I was very controlled by him,” said Stark, now 28, who has since divorced and remarried. “I was starved for a male figure in my life . . . and he started paying attention to me.”

Stark said that she was questioned by a school counselor about her relationship, but that she said nothing was going on because the teacher had told her that he would lose his coaching job if she told anyone.

The teacher, now a principal at a Northern California high school, contends that their relationship didn’t start until after Stark graduated and turned 18.

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Stark and Terri Miller, a parent of a Pahrump Valley High School student and an outspoken critic of school officials, note that Worden had both Peterson and the California principal as teachers when he attended the school as a student and may have learned his behavior from them.

Worden denies such charges, but some parents believe that the school district’s lack of action has created an environment where sexual misconduct is accepted.

“My take on it is that I would like to think it’s an anomaly. Unfortunately, to me it’s almost the same as looking the other way on any inappropriate behavior--if we don’t tend to business then it sends an opposite message,” said Richard Daugherty, associate professor of education administration at the University of Nevada-Reno.

Mary Peterson, superintendent of public instruction for the state of Nevada, said, “I would agree that there does seem to be a lot of allegations in this one small high school.

“I have not heard of any other allegations in other high schools. This seems to be kind of an anomaly. People need to acknowledge that until someone comes forward and files a formal complaint, there’s no way a district can go on rumors.”

School district officials have conceded in the past that they were aware of rumors about Joseph Peterson and questioned him about them, but were unable to take action because students would not go on record.

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Daugherty said that ultimately a victimized student will have to make a report, but argues that students are more willing to come forward if they think that the school officials will protect their privacy.

“It would be rough enough as an adult, but even worse as a student,” he said. “A little good research on the part of the administrator would go a long way to get a collective group against a teacher.”

Christopher Kearney, an associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, said such relationships violate “the sanctity of the educational system” and usually follow a pattern.

“The molester goes through a process of grooming the person,” he said. “He identifies a vulnerable child who responds to attention and who he grooms into thinking he is a special friend. Then there’s the trap: ‘Now you have to do something for me.’ Now the child feels obligated and threatened. The molester coerces them into activities . . . and frequently will play the victim.”

Although cases such as these may not qualify as pedophilia, they put the teacher-student relationship in jeopardy and unfairly disrupt the classroom setting, Kearney said.

“The teacher is subjected to bias in terms of grading--there’s manipulation on both sides,” he said. “It takes away from the equality with other students. It is clearly inappropriate.”

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The Nevada Supreme Court affirmed as much in September 1992 when it upheld a district court’s ruling in the case of Konewko v. Douglas Co. The school district there fired Karen Konewko, a high school teacher, after it was learned that she wrote sexually oriented letters to a male student.

The school district said teachers must maintain sufficient emotional distance from the pupils, and the court agreed.

In hopes of ending these problems, some residents are pushing for a change in Nevada’s sexual consent law and the creation of a law making it illegal for a teacher to have a sexual relationship with a student.

Stark and Daugherty said school districts should do more thorough background checks on teaching applicants. Daugherty also said universities are getting better at educating teachers-to-be about sexual harassment and other sexual issues.

Becki Mouser hopes her lawsuit will spur administrators and legislators into action.

“Hopefully, it teaches people that they can’t get away with it,” she said. “Hopefully, it makes it so other girls can come out and so the pattern can be broken. . . . My individual lawsuit won’t have any major effect, but maybe they’ll make some law, and at least the school will have some better guidelines.”

Her suit isn’t about money, she said, although she needs help with weekly counseling bills. “Money isn’t an issue,” she said, “or we would have asked for more.”

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