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Strict vetting process of teachers in Palm Beach County

Extra counselors at H.L. Watkins
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Posted at 9:26 PM, Mar 30, 2017
and last updated 2017-03-31 07:01:22-04

Corey Perry, 33, a former teacher at Watkins Middle School, remains on the run, wanted by the FBI on child pornography charges. 

It wasn’t the first time a Watkins Middle School teacher is accused of sexual misconduct. In 2012 Heath Miller went to jail for having sex with students. 

Officials with the Palm Beach County School District said Thursday it is a horrible coincidence.

Gonzalo S. La Cava, chief of human resources at the district, said teachers are going through a very thorough screening process.

“We are taking every single precaution to make sure our children are safe and protected,” La Cava said. “We do that every single day with every single background check. That’s why we make sure that not only do we vet them, but the FBI vets them and the Florida law enforcement as well.”

In 2005, fingerprinting and background check guidelines were revised and enhanced. The Jessica Lunsford Act, named after the 9-year old girl who was abducted and killed in 2005. 

Under the Jessica Lunsford Act, anyone who works on school grounds needs to undergo a thorough background check. 

“Anyone who wants to work with children in Palm Beach, we require them to do that,” La Cava said. 

Lawrence Leon, chief of police with the Palm Beach County School District, said they work very carefully to make sure children are safe.

“With the electronic submission (of their application), at any time an employee is arrested, we get the arrest notification immediately,” Leon said. 

But both Perry and Miller went through those background checks and passed. 

District officials said despite their best efforts, sometimes the unthinkable happens, but they’re doing everything they can to keep children safe.

“Someone who wants to harm children absolutely knows what they’re doing,” Sally Berenzweig with KidSafe Foundation said. “They’re very smart. They’re very savvy. They have a plan.” 

Berenzweig said there are several things parents can do:

1. Explain to your children the difference between a good and bad secret 

2. Talk to them at an early age that their bodies are special and belong to them

3. Remind them that if anybody makes them feel uncomfortable - even someone they know and trust - that they should talk about it

4. Listen to your children as they talk to you or make comments about how they feel about their teachers. Ask questions and don’t judge them. 

Perry was a well-regarded teacher at the school and district. Watkins students told NewsChannel 5 he was something like a father figure to them.

“Almost 90 percent of the time you will hear that this child molester or person trading child porn was the teacher of the year, the coach of the year,” Berenzweig said. 

She said there’s often a grooming process involving the victim. 

“They often look for a very vulnerable child. A lonely child, a child seeking attention, “ Berenzweig said. 

Guidance Counselors At H.L. Watkins

Extra counselors will be at H.L. Watkins Middle School in Palm Beach Gardens Friday. In a statement, the Palm Beach County School District explained counselors will meet with students who may have been victims of abuse.

The counselors will also be able to address concerns and answer questions about the allegations against Perry.

The district encourages former Watkins Middle School students to reach out to the counselors at their high schools if they feel the need to speak with a professional about any contact they had with Perry.

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