The sexual abuse of children is a hot news item these days, but the problem of sexual misconduct by educators has never received much press. In an April 24 Letter to the editor of Education Week, New Jersey parent Carole Nunn observed: "It is terrifying for parents to read again and again that educators are consistently among those arrested for such crimes."
In the fall of 1999, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette explored the issue of teacher sexual abuse in a special three-part series. The authors noted that this subject is a "sensitive" one "that's been whispered about in school hallways and behind closed office doors as long as there have been schools." The Gazette examined 727 cases of sex abuse by teachers from 1994 to 1999. Among the findings:
- The number of teachers losing their licenses for sex offenses during that period jumped nearly 80%. Experts told the Gazette that "even the growing numbers don't reflect the actual toll."
- Several offenders had been molesting students for many years. One university researcher stated: "When they get caught, it's never a case of one act of bad judgment with one child."
- Administrators and principals sometimes help offenders land jobs in other schools; educators call this "passing the trash."
- Some states do not conduct background checks on teacher applicants, while others do only partial checks. In many states, educators convicted of sex crimes against students do not automatically lose their licenses.
- The appeals process allows some abusers to teach in other districts or states until their appeals run out.
- Due to poor communication between education departments and criminal justice branches of state governments, education officials don't always find out if a teacher has been arrested for a sex offense.
Education Week Report
A six-month investigation of teacher sexual abuse by Education Week in 1998 culminated in the publication of a special report on the issue. Investigators interviewed law-enforcement officers, officials and educators across the country and found that "far more misconduct takes place - and far more students are made victims - than is ever made public."
Education Week found "a dearth of national data on sex offenses against students by school employees," but investigators managed to turn up 244 cases of abuse nationwide over a six-month period, from March through August 1998. These cases involved everything from inappropriate touching to long-term sexual relationships and serial rape. The suspects ranged in age from 21 to 75, with 28 the average age. More than seven of 10 offenders were teachers, but school administrators, janitors, bus drivers and librarians were also involved. Victims ranged in age from kindergarten children to high school seniors. In more than two-thirds of the cases, students were 14 or older.
The report stated that, despite growing awareness of the destructiveness of sexual abuse to the students involved, little has been done to stop it. Among the reasons for this inaction:
- The number of offenders is small and their behavior so repugnant that many people assume they are easy to spot. The reality is that most perpetrators are the least likely people to arouse suspicion.
- There is a natural reluctance among school employees to believe their colleagues could engage in such behavior. "It's something that always happens in some other part of the country or in some other school district," one superintendent admitted after a female teacher in his district pleaded guilty to having a four-month sexual relationship with a teenage male student.
- Victims are often labeled liars by classmates and sometimes by teachers, counselors and principals. They may also be blamed for "bringing down" popular educators. "The characteristics that make you a good teacher are the same characteristics that make you successful in getting close to kids to abuse them," a Utah state education department official told Education Week.
- Powerful incentives keep many victims silent, from vows of love to threats of violence from abusers. When students do speak up, they often beg their confidants for secrecy.
Education Week found that "time after time, school officials have fallen short in their duty to keep students safe." This failure has proven costly to districts: victims have been awarded millions of dollars in damages from the courts. In a small but growing number of cases, school officials are being disciplined for failure to properly handle their employees' sexual misconduct. The top lawyer for the National School Boards Association revealed that school officials often fear potential lawsuits by alleged abusers more than by their victims. Employees "sue for defamation, for violation of due process rights, for even suspending them to do an investigation," she said, while the possibility of litigation by victims "is much more remote."
A New Hampshire mother whose 8th-grade daughter had sex repeatedly with her teacher, lamented: "What really offends me is that the one place there are no child advocates is in the schools." Another parent, the father of a 5th-grade student who was one of many young girls molested by a male teacher in California, told Education Week: "By law, we've got to take our kids and drop them off at this school. Before this happened, we felt it was a safe place, a place we could trust. Now we don't know at all."
Sexual Abuse and Surveys
Parent Carole Nunn wonders whether abusive educators have access to the many intrusive surveys given to school children that solicit personal information about their sexual behavior, use of drugs and alcohol, and private family matters. Mrs. Nunn's son was forced to take such a survey without her knowledge when he was 13, and she wonders who might have read or reviewed it.
"People who prey on children often take jobs where children are," she says, and adds that parents "have no guarantee that those collecting the data from intrusive questionnaires are not child pornographers or pedophiles."
New Jersey now has a law guaranteeing parents the right to informed, written consent before their children are given intrusive surveys. (See Education Reporter, Jan. & Feb. 2002.) Mrs. Nunn and other concerned parents believe this law is an important tool for preventing "highly sensitive information about children and their families from landing in the wrong hands."