HARRISBURG, Pa. – The problem of educators sexually abusing students has reached epidemic proportions and Texas, Pennsylvania, and California are leading states with the most cases, though experts cited a growing trend coast to coast.

Nationwide, Houston-based Drive West Communications has tracked “416 (sex abuse) cases just since January,” the group’s chairman, Terry Abbott, told TribLive.com.

“It’s an enormous problem all across the country, and Pennsylvania’s at the top of it,” he said. “This isn’t a list you want to lead.”

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Experts contend that teachers’ unprecedented access to students through social media websites is likely a major factor behind the significant increase in cases involving teachers engaging in inappropriate relationships with students. Such complaints in Pennsylvania, for example, are on track to double this year, according to the news site.

“Social media has definitely increased that kind of conduct,” Shane Crosby, assistant chief counsel for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, told the news site. “When I was in school, if a teacher wanted to talk to me, he had to call my home and talk to my mom. Now you can have 24-hour access to a student.

“That’s not always a good thing,” he said.

According to TribLive.com analysis of Pennsylvania teacher discipline records:

At least 233 teachers have lost their licenses since 2009 because of criminal convictions, most related to sexual misconduct, child pornography and assault.

Records show at least 65 social studies teachers were disciplined, as well as 54 science, 49 health, 46 English, 38 math and 19 art teachers.

Music teachers … pervaded state disciplinary documents, accounting for 52 cases, or about one in 15 teachers for which a subject area was listed. Unlike other disciplines with dozens of dedicated teachers per school, most districts employ only a few art teachers.

Administrators and counselors represent about 20 percent of cases; classroom teachers make up the rest. Men ages 40 to 50 committed most of the infractions.

Crosby told the news site that state officials suspect the number of cases were under-reported by schools for many years, due in-part to vague reporting laws, but the law and schools’ obligation to report sexual abuse has improved in the wake of the infamous Jerry Sandusky child molestation case.

Sandusky, a former assistant Penn State University football coach, is currently serving 30 to 60 years in prison for molesting young boys over several years, despite the fact that school officials had knowledge of his misdeeds.

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New laws in Pennsylvania now require school officials to report allegations of sexual misconduct within 15 days, according to TribLive.com.

Lawmakers in Pennsylvania and in the U.S. Congress are also pushing for legislation that would require federal background checks for all school employees, forbid schools from employing those convicted of violent crimes, and prevent schools from engaging in “passing the trash” deals that have perpetuated the problem of educator sexual misconduct.

“Passing the trash” is a practice in the K-12 education world in which school and union officials negotiate a deal that allows an accused educator to resign with a letter of recommendation to gain employment in another school district. The pedophile teachers typically repeat their heinous behavior until they’re arrested and convicted.

Unfortunately, legislation to address the issue has stalled after teachers unions raised concerns about employees’ rights.

Abbott, who served in the federal Department of Education under George W. Bush, believes that with a new generation of teachers who have grown up with social media the problem will likely only get worse unless local, state and federal officials take steps now to address the issue.

“The kids in high school and college now have grown up with this kind of in-your-face contact,” he told TribLive.com, citing sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. “It’s their norm. So what happens when some of them become teachers in five or 10 years? Will they feel the same kind of social boundaries that older people are already ignoring? Probably not.

“This is not a problem we want to gamble on.”