Parents should know: sexual abuse by teachers is under-reported

By Martha Jette

January 20, 2014

The Henderson County School Board agrees to pay $1.78 million to the families of 17 children who were alleged sexual victims of a former teacher assistant (Henderson, N.C.)

42-year-old female middle school teacher admits sexual intercourse with sixth-grade male student (Hackensack, N.J.)

50-year-old male Montessori teacher fondles 7-year-old student in bathroom (Yonkers, N.Y.)

The above types of news headlines are a major cause for concern by parents of students of all ages across the United States. And they certainly have every right to be alarmed because statistics indicate that sexual misconduct by educators in the nation’s schools is an ongoing and grievous issue.

Parents send their children to school assuming that they will not only learn new things to help them in life but also that teachers can be trusted. But a 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary, Policy & Program Studies Service indicates that some unsuspecting children are learning things about sex at the very hand of those they trust.

Entitled Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature, this study was written by Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University and Interactive, Inc. in Huntington, N.Y. Charol referenced what limited data was available from a variety of sources including previous studies, police reports, child welfare agencies, newspaper and magazine headlines and more to determine such things as incident rates of educator sexual misconduct, offender characteristics, which children are targeted, how this conduct is kept secret, discipline of offenders, future effect on the victims and recommendations aimed at prevention.

In regard to this study, Deputy Secretary Eugene W. Hickok stated: “Any adult misconduct or sexual abuse in schools is of grave concern to students, parents, educators, and the Department of Education. This literature review of sexual abuse and sexual misconduct responds to the mandate in Section 5414 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA)” (and required under the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, to conduct a national study of same in U.S. schools.)

A startling finding was a study by Harris International in 2000 for the American Association of University Women revealed that many students experience some form of sexual misconduct by a school employee between kindergarten and Grade 12. The study included students from Grade 8 to 11 in approximately 3,000 schools, in which they were asked about any sexual harassment or abuse they suffered. This included everything from “sexual comments, jokes, gestures or looks to spreading “sexual rumors,” writing sexual messages, “touching or grabbing “in a sexual way,” forced kissing or other sexual act, being spied upon in a school shower, pulling off clothes and more.

The study found that “9.6 percent of all students in grades 8 to 11” reported educator sexual misconduct. A total of 8.7 percent reported, “non-contact sexual misconduct and 6.7 percent experienced “only contact misconduct.” Since some students reported both types of misconduct, “These total to more than 9.6 percent…”

Shakeshaft “applied the percent of students who reported experiencing educator sexual misconduct to the population of all K-12 students” and the result was startling. She determined that “more than 4.5 million students are subjected to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school some time between kindergarten and 12th grade.”

This number is unacceptable and should have every parent shaking in his or her boots. On top of this, Shakeshaft found that such incidents are grossly under-reported.

“Several studies estimate that only about 6 percent of all children report sexual abuse by an adult to someone who can do something about it. The other 94 percent do not tell anyone or talk only to a friend who they swear to silence,” the report states.

“When students do report, they almost always report incidents of contact sexual abuse -touching, kissing, hugging or forced intercourse. Verbal and visual abuses are rarely reported to school officials. Of the cases that come to a superintendent’s attention, nearly 90 percent are contact sexual misconduct (Shakeshaft and Cohan, 1994).”

If that is not concerning enough, the study also found that the majority of complaints are simply disbelieved and/or ignored. In fact, the report adds, “Few students, families, or school districts report incidents to the police or other law enforcement agencies. When criminal justice officials are alerted, it is almost always because parents have made the contact.”

Because of these facts, offenders are rarely taken to court for their actions, let alone disciplined in any way.

“In an early study of 225 cases of educator sexual abuse in New York, all of the accused had admitted to sexual abuse of a student but none of the abusers was reported to authorities and only 1 percent lost their license to teach.”

Of those offenders, “only 35 percent received a negative consequence for their actions:15 percent were terminated or, if not tenured, they were not rehired; and 20 percent received a formal reprimand or suspension. Another 25 percent received no consequence or were reprimanded informally and off-the-record. Nearly 39 percent chose to leave the district, most with positive recommendations or even retirement packages intact.”

In fact the study notes: “In many cases, no formal investigation was conducted. If a police investigation did occur, districts often failed to do their own reporting in terms of violations of district policy or Title IX  requirements.”

An analysis of state of Nevada sentences in cases between 1994 and 2003 shows the extent of the “lack of uniformity of response and consequences.” In a number of cases, the teachers found guilty of sexually abusing a student involved were “allowed to resign” and “received no criminal penalty.” In one case, an abuser received a sentence of “life in prison with the possibility of parole within five years, while an offender in a similar case was given “up to five years probation.”

These findings reveal that sentences for this crime are all over the board. Little to no justice is afforded to young victims, and the majority of abuses are particularly disgraceful given the trauma that many students endure both during the abuse and well into their adulthood.

“Some believe that the rights of adults are favored over the safety of children (S.E.S.A.M.E., 2003; Shoop, 2003).”

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