When Julio Gomez heard a Gainesville teacher at his son’s school, Centennial Arts Academy, was charged with child molestation, he quickly Google searched “how to talk to your child about abuse.”
He and his son, 12, spent the next night talking about “inappropriate touching” and who qualifies as a trusted adult.
“You hear of a teacher who’s in my son’s school building being inappropriate and you automatically fear the worst,” Gomez, whose son is a fifth grader, said. “I knew I needed to open up a conversation about touching and behavior and what’s good and bad.”
Gabriel Ramon Espinoza, 45, a teacher at Centennial Arts Academy was arrested on two charges of child molestation on Wednesday, Feb. 24. Gainesville Police said Espinoza was under investigation for “inappropriate contact with a child.” Defense attorney Clint Teston said his client denies the allegations.
Gainesville City Schools Superintendent Jeremy Williams said Espinoza worked at the academy as the Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math, or STEAM, activity teacher.
“Our counselors and social workers work with whole groups of students and individual students throughout the year to recognize what is and is not appropriate. Our goal is to create an environment of trust where accusations are reported and investigated,” Williams said.
Williams declined to comment further on the ongoing case.
Stan Lewis, Hall’s community relations director, said the district has a program that addresses inappropriate touching and warning signs, called “Safer Smarter Kids.” The program is presented to all elementary schools by their counselors. At the middle and high school level, Lewis said the district has a program called “Smart Girls, Wise Guys” which is provided by Rape Response, a local nonprofit.
5 steps to protecting our children
Learn the facts
Talk about it
Recognize the signs
More detailed information on these steps is available in a pamphlet available at the Darkness to Light website.
In 2019, Lewis said all certified personnel were trained in a program titled, Stewards of Children, which is an evidence-based program developed by Darkness to Light and focused on prevention and how to respond to child sexual abuse.
The training touches on how to identify unsafe situations and practices and react responsibly in the best interest of the children they serve, Lewis said.
Hall County employees are also required to review and be assessed on their knowledge of the Georgia Code of Ethics for Educators. Child abuse and neglect are a part of this annual review, Lewis said.
“Our schools work hard to provide a safe place for students, parents and team members to have honest conversations,” Lewis said.
Steve Collins, is the executive director of Adults Protecting Children, a nonprofit organization that works primarily with churches in the area of child safety. Collins also serves as a regional prevention coordinator for the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy.
Collins said the organization strays away from using the phrase, “good touch, bad touch” as it can be confusing for children. He said if someone who’s supposed to be a trusted person inappropriately touches a child, they might not understand that it’s a “bad touch.” Instead Collins recommends parents speak to their children about the names and places of their private body parts and red flags to notice from others.
Collins said one common red flag to address is when an adult wants to keep an action, touch or act a “secret.”
“Parents can’t teach their kids everything in just one conversation. The key is to have an open dialogue about health sex developments and sexual abuse warning signs,” Collins said. “The more you talk about it, the more comfortable your child will be to come speak to you.”
Collins recommends people go through the Stewards of Children training. He said the first step in the training is about learning the facts, such as recognizing that one in 10 kids will be sexually abused before the age of 18, Collins said. The training also highlights that 90% of children know their abusers, he said. The point of this stage is to show parents that abuse is prevalent in all communities and commonly by the hands of someone trusted, Collins said.
The second step focuses on eliminating opportunity, this can be done by avoiding situations where your child is alone with an adult or “more powerful” child, Collins said. If a child is in an organization or program where they’re going to be alone with a volunteer or adult, Collins suggests choosing another organization. The last two steps address opening the conversation about abuse and boundaries with children and how to notice warning signs.
“What are the behavioral indications, the emotional indications that a child's been abused? What is different about your child? Is he suddenly nervous, acting out? Notice those signs and then react responsibly. If your child tells you something happened, report it to law enforcement and get the child professional help,” Collins said.
Gomez said his son didn’t understand how someone who taught “right things” for a living, could do something bad to a student.
“I never thought I’d have to tell my son about bad touching at such a young age,” Gomez said. “It was uncomfortable to speak on but it’s important parents educate their children so they’re aware of the good and bad out there.”
Angela Myers, whose daughter is a seventh grader at Davis Middle School said her daughter had the same reaction after hearing news of Espinoza’s arrest.
While sitting in her science class, Myers said her daughter overheard a student whisper “a teacher assaulted a student.” Myers said she had hoped to have the consent, sex and touching conversation with her daughter in high school, not at the age of 12.
Myers and her daughter engaged in a two-hour conversation about appropriate and inappropriate touching, trust and what consent is. Although Myers was reluctant to have the conversation, she said she felt “closer” to her daughter.
Collins recommends parents push through the “uncomfortable” topic with their children. He said not talking about it does more harm.
Gomez and Myers said they both plan to revisit the topic of consent and inappropriate touching with their children in the next few weeks. Collins recommends parents visit the website, https://fliptheswitchcampaign.org and use the coupon code FLIPTHESWITCH to receive free virtual training on how parents can protect their children from abuse and notice warning signs.
“The incident at the Centennial Arts Academy is tragic and horrific. I’m praying for that family and justice,” Myers said. “However it’s put me on higher alert for my own child.”