I-Team: Counselor's Sexual Touch Lessons Raise Questions
By Nathan Baca, Investigative Reporter - bio | email
Mary Lou McCormick on the stand during a sexual assault trial.
LAS VEGAS -- Who you trust to talk to your children about sex at school is a deeply personal decision for some parents. But as the I-Team uncovered, the Clark County School District admits one of their elementary school counselors made up her own unauthorized lessons.
The I-Team first caught word of recently retired elementary school counselor Mary Lou McCormick when covering a local rape trial. A daughter had accused her father of rape, but the father was found not guilty after jurors heard unusual testimony from the girl's school counselor. What McCormick said on the stand has CCSD talking about how they teach local children about sexual contact.
When Gary Miller stood trial for raping his daughter and her friend, his defense attorneys called the daughter's former school counselor to the stand. McCormick outlined her so-called "good touch, bad touch" lessons at Las Vegas' Robert Lunt Elementary School.
"I always use my hand puppets. They talk to each other. They say, 'somebody touched me in a way that made me feel uncomfortable' and they would have a dialogue between the puppets," McCormick said.
She testified she made up her own lyrics about child sexual contact and played them on her guitar. The prosecutor asked how many children approached McCormick alleging sexual abuse during her 10 years as a school counselor?
"Have you had the occasion to have other children disclose abuse to you?" Mary Kay Holtfus, the prosecutor, asked.
"I've literally had hundreds," McCormick responded.
Claiming that Child Protective Services would do nothing to help, McCormick said she gathered children who alleged sexual abuse into a so-called "lunch bunch" group.
"During their lunch, they bring their lunches to my office and we had a group of kids that had been through similar situations," McCormick said.
Gwen LaFond leads Clark County School District's counselors. She declined to talk specifically about McCormick, but did say counselors are not allowed to improvise their own lessons. Counselors are also not allowed to hold lunch group therapy sessions.
McCormick claimed -- on the stand -- that it's a school district policy to not take notes when a child first comes forward with a sexual abuse allegation. She reasoned the district didn't want those notes to end up in court. The district flatly denies that policy exists.
"That's inaccurate. We would generally take some kind of notes that we contacted CPS on such and such date," LaFond said.
A jury found Gary Miller not guilty of all rape charges. One juror told the I-Team they simply did not believe the witnesses, including McCormick.
Dr. Olayinka Harding is leading a push to get trained child psychologists into schools. She explains how impressionable a child's mind is to suggestions they've been sexually touched.
"If you're not distinctly aware of that, it's very easy to put your thoughts, your feelings onto somebody else and have them pick up on those things, especially with children, who may be impressionable," Harding said.
She add McCormick's so-called "lunch bunch" could influence a child's memories.
"Now, if you have a peer group that's around a particular item, you have to be careful as far as whether that item is truly a part of that child or whether it's that child trying to fit in," Harding said.
CCSD says it does not send supervisors to check in on school counselors. It's up to each individual principal to raise the issue, if they believe their counselor is violating district policy.
Attorneys who defended Gary Miller worry there may be more parents out there falsely accused of sexually abusing their child.
"Nobody would even know it's happening. Parents should ask their kids if they've been through a session like this and who they've spoke to because the school would not have told them," Miller's attorney Dan Bunin said.
Both the attorneys and the psychologist believe McCormick had the best of intentions with her unauthorized lessons and group therapy.
McCormick retired just before last year's rape trial. The I-Team has reached out to McCormick's family, but hasn't heard from anyone.