While he was a high school football coach in the small central Texas town of Taylor, Jesse Lynn Stroud developed a reputation with the ladies. Problem was, they were 14- and 15-year-old students.

Parents began complaining about his favoritism toward female students as early as 1985, four years after he was hired. The school librarian twice approached school officials about Stroud's inappropriate touching of female students - at one point describing it as "child molestation" - but to no avail.The blatant flirting took a more serious turn in late 1987. A 15-year-old girl confessed to having sex with the coach. In court, he pleaded guilty to sexual abuse of a minor and was sentenced to six months in prison and 10 years' probation, of which he has served nearly seven years.

The case offers a sobering lesson on what happens when a teacher, entrusted to protect students, betrays that most basic trust, and when a school community looks the other way.

There are probably no more sexual predators in schools today than there ever have been, experts say. Yet inadequate employment screen-ing, sheer incompetence and collective denial have allowed those teachers who do molest children and adolescents to keep their jobs or find work in other school districts.

What is slowly changing, however, is how schools and states are working to bar these criminals from the door. The changes are spurred, in part, by negligence lawsuits, including one filed by the Taylor girl, identified in federal court documents as "Jane Doe," that may extend school officials' liability to an unprecedented de-gree.

"There is this wishful thinking . . . that schools be safe havens, and it's hard for us to accept that people with responsibility for our children might wish them harm," said Paul Longo, general counsel for the Commission on Teacher Credentialing in California, which has one of the strictest teacher employment screening processes in the country.

"There are only a minute, minute number (of teachers) who are predatory threats, so it's very easy to look the other way," Longo said. "But the few that exist can do so much harm."

To protect themselves, many school districts have revised teacher application forms to more readily flag pedophilic behavior. They ask not only about past criminal convictions, but also whether an applicant ever resigned while under investigation for sexual mis-con-duct.

Nearly 20 states require teaching applicants to be fingerprinted so they can run criminal background checks.

These states are: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania (only for out-of-state applicants), South Carolina, Utah, Washington, West Virginia.

Two states - Illinois and Wisconsin - will require fingerprinting of teachers within the next two years.

Three have rejected fingerprinting requirements: Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota. The re-main-ing states have no policies regarding fingerprinting of teach-er applicants.

Some states make it a crime for a teacher to become sexually involved with a student, regardless of the state's legal age of consent.

And, a national register lists every person who has had a certificate denied or revoked for sexual misconduct - about 1,600 such actions since 1987.

Every state board of education receives a monthly update of the list, compiled by the Seattle-based National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification.

"We've tightened the net across states," said Adelle Nore, chief investigator for teacher certification in Washington state, where legislators mandated fingerprinting two years ago.

The net still has gaping holes, though, through which so-called "mobile molesters" can slip. Feeling the heat of complaints, these teachers often will deny accusations of sexual misconduct but agree to resign in exchange for clean walking papers.

School administrators "will cut deals and say, `We're not going to put anything on your permanent record, but you need to get out of Dodge,' " said Jason January, a criminal prosecutor in Dallas.

Typically, administrators who agree not to initiate a formal investigation are deluding themselves into thinking the molestation was a one-time occurrence.

Sometimes, these criminals practice their perversions undetected because of botched employment checks and system failures.

John E. McGrew, for example, was "teacher of the year" at J.J. Rhoads Elementary in south Dallas before his conviction in 1988 for the sexual molestation of three grade-school boys.

Not until the criminal investigation in Dallas was it discovered that he'd been fired by the Pasadena, Calif., school district in 1977 for operating a theft ring and denied recertification by that state in 1984.

Consider, too, the case of former Michigan elementary school teach-er James Udell, a man one judge called "the pied piper of pedophilia."

Udell taught unencumbered in western Michigan school systems for 33 years, despite a conviction in 1962 for taking indecent liberties with a child and one in 1985 for criminal sexual conduct.

The state revoked his teaching certificate after the 1985 conviction, but area districts remained clueless because of a breakdown in state notification processes.

Udell substitute taught for eight more years, until, in 1993, he was arrested for molesting three elementary-school girls. He is now serving a 20-to 30-year-prison sentence.

It is not that school officials don't care about children. Their tardiness in investigating a teacher suspected of sexual abuse often is born of the impulse to deny and to hope that what appears to be happening isn't, said several experts who study sex offenders.

Most molesters are friendly, popular and considered hard-working professionals by their colleagues.

The Stroud case was typical in that respect.

Stroud was an affable biology teacher and coach, known for his good rapport with students. He demanded the best from his football players, and they respected him for it. He would do special things for students - he once took a birthday cake to a player at home.

"I felt terrible, because he was such a nice guy," said one Taylor parent. "It makes you really feel dumb. You feel betrayed, too. This person's been in your house."

Today, Stroud lives with his wife and three children in a small town near Taylor and is studying to become a respiratory therapist. He has been ordered never again to work with minors.

In a recent telephone interview, he denied reports that he was flirtatious with female students, although he acknowledged his mis-take in engaging in a sexual relationship with Jane Doe.

"I'm not the kind of person who molested little kids or that kind of thing," he said. "I just had an affair with a high school girl."

Calling the relationship an "affair" makes it sound romantic, even loving. Experts in child sexual abuse say such attempts to normalize behavior are common among people who prey sexually on children and teenagers.

Even though the girl technically consented, few people believe that someone so young and inexperienced could make sound emotional judgments about an authority figure so liked and admired.

"There cannot be equality between a teacher and a student," said Donald C. Bross, a pediatric lawyer and sociologist at the Kempe National Center for the Prevention and Treatment of Child Abuse in Denver.

Taylor Police Sgt. Mary Bartlett, who investigated the Stroud case, has no patience for suggestions that the girl was at fault.

"What you're looking at is a child . . . who is leaving junior high and going into high school. You're looking at this child experiencing the peer pressures, the fear of (not) being accepted, popularity, you name it," she said.

"Then you have this coach coming on to her, befriending her. And yes, she falls into his trap."

Legally, the Stroud case lives on. Jane Doe settled with the Taylor Independent School District, and the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals granted immunity to the former superintendent.

The court did not grant immunity to former principal Eddy Lankford, however, ruling instead that he showed "deliberate indifference" to mounting evidence of Stroud's misbehavior. Lankford's attorneys have appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. He declined to comment on the case.

Attorneys who represent school administrators say the ruling is preposterous, because no principal can keep tabs on the behavior of every employee.

The 5th Circuit ruling may scare schools into more closely monitoring employees. And that alone could protect children at school.

But finally, catching sexual predators will depend most on brave souls, such as the school librarian, who risk censure and hostility to report a colleague for suspected abuse.

"How well things work is dependent on the people in the system," said Adelle Nore, the Washington state investigator, "and whether they have the courage and the backbone to act."