Most ‘celebrated teacher’ may be abusing your child

By Martha Jette

January 20, 2014

According to a study conducted by Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University and Interactive, Inc. for the U.S. Department of Education, the teacher that is “most celebrated” at your child’s school may be a sexual abuser.

“In elementary schools, the abuser is often one of the people that students most like and that parents most trust… The educators who target elementary school children are often professionally accomplished and even celebrated. Particularly compared to their non-abusing counterparts, they hold a disproportionate number of awards.”

The study entitled Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature examines research already available on the incidence and prevalence of educator sexual misconduct as required under the No Child Left Behind Act.

“The limited available data (Caroline Hendrie, 1998; Jennings and Tharp, 2003; Shakeshaft, 2003; Robert J. Shoop, 2004; Zemel and Twedt, 1999) indicates that teachers who sexually abuse belie the stereotype of an abuser as an easily identifiable danger to children. Many are those most celebrated in their profession. (Shakeshaft and Cohan, 1994)”

Abusers of students up to the seventh grade have different patterns than those who abuse older children,” Shakeshaft notes. “It is common to find that educators who have been sexually abusing children are also the same educators who display on their walls a community ‘Excellence in Teaching’ award or a ‘Teacher of the Year’ certificate.”

This finding has confused both school officials and members of the public. In fact, it has led to many allegations of abuse simply being ignored. Unfortunately, more emphasis has been placed on the ability of the teacher as an educator than the rights of a child, who reports such abuse.

Shakeshaft states that a previous study by Jennings and Tharp, which reveals “25 percent of the educators in Texas who were disciplined for sexual infractions involving students between 1995 and 2003 were coaches or music teachers.” These are teachers who spend the most alone time with students. As well, a study by Willmsen and O’Hagan found “Washington state teachers who coach were “three times more likely to be investigated by the state for sexual misconduct than non-coaching teachers.”

The study also goes into just how these teachers operate in order to get what they want.

“Like sexual predators anywhere, sexual abusers in schools use various strategies to trap students. They lie to them, isolate them, make them feel complicit, and manipulate them into sexual contact.”

And the students most targeted are those that would be considered most vulnerable, have marginal physical or mental abilities, or are those that are simply grateful for the added attention.

“Whether premeditated or opportunistic, selection is influenced by the compliance of the student and the likelihood of secrecy. Because most educator abusers seek to conceal their sexual contact with students, offenders often target students that they can control,” Shakeshaft notes adding that in some cases, control is maintained “by force.”

For students in “late middle and high school levels” abusers are more likely to target a student due to a given opportunity to do so or even “a misplaced sense of privilege.” Most abuse results from a “much subtler framework of grooming and enticement. Grooming allows the abuser to test the student’s silence at each step” and “serves to implicate the student, resulting in children believing that they are responsible for their own abuse because, ‘I never said stop.’”

Enticement might include anything from providing emotional support to extra help with lessons and extra-curricular activities, all aimed at creating a special bond between the teacher and student.

Such opportunities can arise among children who may be “estranged” from their parents (my parent’s don’t understand me syndrome), students with low self-esteem, those whose parents indulge in “risky behavior” or children that do as well “not only because they might be responsive but also because they are more likely to maintain silence.”

And silence is essential to the abuser getting what he or she wants.

“Offenders work hard to keep children from telling,” Shakeshaft wrote. “Almost always they persuade students to keep silent by intimidation and threats…” that may include telling the student they will fail, no one will believe them, or the teacher won’t be a friend anymore. Offenders might also play on a child’s feelings of shame over what has been happening.

Shakeshaft noted that only 17 states “require school officials to report any alleged educator misconduct to state education officials.” At the same time, a study by Kendell-Tacket (1993) found that most victims of educator abuse suffer “damage that lasts well into adulthood, and for most it is never fully repaired.”

A study by Finkelhor & Brown (1985) notes that not only do these children lose trust in all authority figures but they also suffer “physical ailments and lowered immune systems… They often drop out of or avoid school.” As to health effects, 28 percent of victims suffered a “sleep disorder and appetite loss,” with a “substantial number” reporting “negative feelings of self worth because of the abuse.”

The study also found that 43 percent of students tend to avoid the teacher, 34 percent avoid talking in class, 31 percent could not concentrate, 29 percent cut classes or stayed home, 29 percent had difficulty studying and 36 percent avoid school entirely. As well, about 25 percent of victims reported facing “discipline repercussions” they felt was the direct result of them telling on an educator. Overall, 25 percent of victims said they were given “lower grades on tests or assignments” and 6 percent ended up changing schools. Approximately 25 percent later “got into trouble with school authorities.”

Another study by child abuse researcher David Finkelhor (2001) found, “Sexually abused children are more likely than children who are not sexually abused to be substance abusers as adults and to have difficulty forming intimate relationships.”

It should be noted, however, that Shakeshaft found that abuse of children in school involved 18 percent by teachers, 13 percent by substitute teachers, 11 percent by teacher’s aides, 15 percent by coaches, 12 percent by bus drivers, 6 percent by principals, five percent by counselors, 10 percent by security guards and 10 percent by another school employee.

The study also reveals that educators investigated for sexual misconduct were 96 percent males and 4 percent females. This appears to be backed up by Finkelhor’s study, which found, “90 to 98 percent of females and 18 to 86 percent of males are sexually abused by a male.” It is unknown whether females are more likely to report abuse than males or whether some might have been “false accusations.”

These findings suggest that abuse of females is more likely to be reported than abuse of males, but that the differences between the percentages of males and females who are abused may be much smaller than has previously been reported. Since “there is widespread belief that false accusations are common,” Shakeshaft noted, “students are often not believed. There are no systematic studies of false accusations of educators but studies of child sexual abuse in general indicate that false allegations are not common.”

The study also reveals that making a formal complaint against a teacher or other school official is difficult for students because “there is no one person to whom all rumors, allegations or complaints are channeled.” Shakeshaft suggested that this must change and a policy needs to be published so students know how to register such complaints. And since it was also revealed that most schools do not report such incidents, it was advised that any allegations be “reported to both the police and child protection agencies.”

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