Sex Abuse in Schools: Shocking Crime, Wide Impact
It was early last October, during Norward Roussell's ninth month as superintendent of the Selma (Ala.) City Schools, when he read in a local newspaper of accusations that an elementary-school principal in his jurisdiction had sexually molested schoolchildren.
The newspaper account was the first he had heard of a case that, as details unfolded, would become what Mr. Roussell describes as "a baptism by fire" on the issue of sexual abuse in the schools.
The story began with a murder: 23-year-old Robert Hall was charged with killing a teacher, Raymond Dozier, who he claimed had sexually abused him since he was a pupil in Mr. Dozier's 8th-grade class. The 23-year-old also6claimed that his former school principal, Percy Marks, was involved.
After a two-month investigation, the principal was indicted on three felony counts of child sexual abuse: two counts of enticing a child to enter his house for immoral purposes and one count of sodomy.
The investigation also led to an ongoing grand-jury probe into allegations that at least 25 school workers in Alabama and Georgia counties took part in a ring of homosexual abuse and drug use that included more than 75 children.
"I was shocked at the gravity of what appeared to be involved," says Mr. Roussell.
Before the murder, he had considered child abuse an important national issue, the superintendent says, but it took the continued on Page 16
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shock of finding it close to home to make him realize that "we must take a hard stand on protecting our children."
But deciding what that "hard stand" should include has posed legal and moral dilemmas that have divided and perplexed public officials nationwide.
For school personnel, the decisionmaking holds particularly significant consequences. Though sexual-abuse cases have hardly reached epidemic proportions in schools, the increasing press reports of school-related incidents have a public impact far beyond their number.
As Mr. Roussell has learned, it only takes one case to cause great damage in a school community.
Now "baptized," the Selma superintendent has entered with other school administrators into the debate over how to rewrite--or create from scratch--school policies and personnel-screening methods to assure that schools are havens from the violence of abuse.
"This is an issue that is particularly difficult for people who work in schools to deal with," he says. "Because they work with children, they have a tendency to become defensive--they feel their professional integrity is being threatened" if they even discuss it.
But deal with it they must, as legislators and parents press for clear, uniform policies on the state level to protect children.
There are no reliable statistics on how serious a problem child sexual abuse is in the United States. Few agencies keep accurate records, and most do not distinguish between sex abuse and other forms of physical abuse.
The American Humane Association in Denver, the only organization to have attempted a national study, estimates that, in 1986, 2.2 million children were abused. Of those, 12 percent were victims of sexual abuse, according to Katie Bond, a spokesman for the aha
Ms. Bond adds that, of the 231,025 abuse cases reported in 1984, an estimated 222--or 0.08 percent--involved school workers.
But despite the small proportion of cases they account for, school workers accused of sexual abuse have gained high visibility and their alleged crimes, as in Selma, have sent shock waves through the community.
Among recent examples:
In Baltimore last month, a female teacher was charged with raping and fondling a 13-year-old boy.
A Newark, N.J., preschool teacher is being tried on 143 charges of sex abuse possibly involving as many as 20 children under her supervision at the Wee Care Day Nursery.
A high-school basketball coach in Logan, Ohio, was indicted last month on 10 sex-related charges stemming from allegations that he installed a video camera in the boys' locker room to photograph nude students.
In January, the former business manager of a private school in Fort Washington, Pa., was sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges that he had sex with young boys and transported child pornography across state lines.
"As recently as five years ago," says Nancy Peterson, a spokesman for the National Commission for the Prevention of Child Abuse, "many people just didn't believe that such a thing as child sex abuse even existed."
Now, many school officials would add, some consider the problem a much greater threat than it actually may be.
Warning of 'Stranger Danger'
The lack of current, specific numbers on child sexual abuse has thwarted efforts by some to institutionalize preventive measures in schools, according to Ms. Peterson.
But thanks to the growing number of nationally publicized cases, such as that involving the staff of the McMartin Preschool in Manhattan Beach, Calif., most schools have begun some kind of child-abuse-prevention program.
In an effort both to protect children and lessen liability, they are teaching their pupils what sexual abuse is and their employees how to identify it and report it.
Milwaukee officials said last month that reports of sexual assaults there had dropped by 64 percent since a program to educate school personnel and students was was instituted last year.
According to Assistant Schools Superintendent Robert W. Long, 59 assaults were reported during the fall semester this year, compared with 165 reports in the fall of 1986.
But Ms. Peterson of the national child-abuse commission points out that programs have varied widely from state to state and from school to school.
One school, she says, may invite in a group of social workers to perform a skit about "Stranger Danger" for a certain grade level only once a year. Another may require that all pupils take an annual child-safety course.
According to the 1987 report of the President's Child Safety Partnership, all 50 states have passed legislation within the past five years dealing with child abuse.
Every state, it says, has also developed an internal registry of convicted and accused child molesters, but only 15 states use the registry as a screening tool for child-care employment. The information only covers abuse and neglect charges within the state, and is only available to state agencies.
A more controversial action by some states has been to require schools to run criminal background checks on job applicants through the Federal Bureau of Investigation, opening up access to criminal records across state lines.
Such access depends heavily, however, on fingerprinting--a move that is strongly opposed by teachers' unions.
The goal of the cross-state background checks is to uncover those applicants who have been arrested in one state for suspected sexual abuse or other serious crimes, and then have moved to another state to find work in the schools--often under an assumed name.
Kenneth Lanning, an fbi investigator who specializes in sex crimes against children, says that pedophiles--adults who derive their sexual pleasure from children--often look for jobs working with the young.
Frequently, he says, when pedophiles are caught, schools anxious to avoid negative publicity let them8quietly slip away--often to find another school job in a state that does not run careful reference checks.
The fbi keeps fingerprint records on anyone arrested for a felony crime--including any sex crime or allegation of moral turpitude. The records also show whether the person was indicted, convicted, or had charges dropped.
State legislation is needed for schools to gain access to such information through state police departments. According to the Presidential report, 22 states that have enacted such legislation, and among those, California, Florida, Nevada, and New York City have made fbi background checks mandatory for teacher certification.
One problem with this tactic, Mr. Lanning says, is deciding who will pay for the checking process, which can cost an estimated $10 to $30 per person.
New Louisiana Policy
Last month, the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education adopted a policy that would require fingerprinting and criminal-background checks for all candidates applying for jobs at public and private schools.
Under the plan, school employees hired since Feb. 26, 1987, will also be fingerprinted.
James Meza Jr., the board's executive director, said the $20 charge for the fingerprint check will be the applicant's responsibility.
The policy stems from the state's two-year-old Child Protection Act, passed after the death of a young boy who had been badly abused by his parents.
Before its enactment, Louisiana's 66 school districts were each responsible for developing policies on child-abuse protection. But it has taken two years for school systems to work out their differences with the state's National Education Association affiliate over guidelines for carrying out the board's statewide plan.
"The debate is not over yet," says Lawrence J. Narcisse, director of government relations for the Louisiana Association of Educators. Union representatives object mostly to the $20 fee charged for what Mr. Narcisse describes as "a degrading thing."
"If the state wants this done," he says, "the state should pay for it."
Opposition from N.E.A.
N.e.a. officials say the union opposes fingerprinting as a basic violation of the right to privacy.
"Teachers feel that being fingerprinted is a humiliating, stigmatizing, and expensive thing," explains Howard Carroll, an nea spokesman. "You just don't know how it's going to be used against you."
But Robert Terte, a spokesman for the New York City Board of Education, where job applicants have been fingerprinted since the late 1960's, says he went through the process with no ill will or effects.
"It's hard to get the ink off, but it's not humiliating," he says. "I guess it's only humiliating if you get caught."
According to Howard Davidson, a spokesman for the National Legal Research Center of the American Bar Association, fingerprinting "is not a violation of civil rights."
"If anything," he says, "it is the state deciding to protect the rights of children."
In Virginia, a similar fingerprintel10ling bill is being considered this year, but it addresses the concerns of one local nea affiliate.
State Delegate Alan E. Mayer, who represents Fairfax County, is sponsoring the bill, which would only require fingerprinting for applicants to the county's school system.
The county school board will pay the cost of the background checks, and state police will screen the applicant's record. Schools will only be given information that pertains to sex-related or violent crimes.
If an applicant is denied a job based on information uncovered through the background check, he or she must receive a copy of the report.
The bill, which has been passed in the legislature and is awaiting approval by the Governor, also includes a two-year sunset provision, which Mr. Mayer says gives the state a chance to "try this out to see how it works."
"It's a modest preventative measure that will not cure the problem,'' he says. "But it's a minimum-level action that should be taken. One person loose in a system like this could touch many, many children's lives."
Eugene A. Truitt, director of legal services for the Virginia Education Association, says that, although theunion does not formally oppose the measure, officials feel it is unnecessary because "schools have the tools" to weed out child molesters now, "if the people who hire would do proper reference checks."
In 1986, the Fairfax County schools hired as a special investigator Alan Barbee, a former policeman, who is responsible for investigating all criminal allegations against school workers.
Last year, Mr. Barbee investigated eight cases of alleged sex abuse--one resulting in the arrest of a school-bus driver.
Mr. Barbee says he has "mixed feelings" about the background- check bill. But he notes that Fairfax County is the only major school system in the metropolitan Washington area that has not yet passed such a bill, and that "people with something on their record would be more likely to apply for jobs here."
Florida's 'Head Start'
Florida's 1984 law requiring the fingerprinting of all applicants for teaching certificates has given the state "a considerable head start" in abuse prevention, according to Martin B. Schaap, an administrator for Professional Practice Services, the investigative arm of the state department of education.
But it has not, he adds, scared away teachers with clean records.
Last year, the state processed 1,800 certificates and, according to Mr. Schaap the number has been rising steadily since enactment of the law.
Schools have access to the applicant's entire criminal record, and the applicant pays the $22 cost of the background check.
Mr. Schaap estimates that he receives about 175 reports of child abuse a year within the 100,000-teacher system, and about 100 of those reports result in a full investigation.
The state created the Professional Practice Services branch, which employs six investigators, not only to protect innocent school employees from false accusations, but also to give the certification board power to conduct probes independent of the state police.
A child molester who might slip through the criminal-justice system would probably still lose his or her teaching certificate, depending on the results of the internal investigation.
In fact, Mr. Schaap says, state attornies often shorten the process by asking any educators convicted of a sex crime to permanently surrender their teaching certificate as part of the court plea.
A Costly Proposal
The cost of background checks has so far kept Colorado from passing legislation on the issue, even though a state audit three years ago found that 55 teachers employed in the state had been convicted or accused of felonies. One of them was a convicted child molester.
Rich Laughlin, director of teacher education and certification, says his office has been running statewide background checks on certification candidates who admit on their applications that they have been arrested.
The certification office was audited again last week to determine what was needed to improve candidates' evaluations. State legislators have been pushing for support for a bill to require fingerprinting and national background checks, but Mr. Laughlin reports that the latest audit concluded that fingerprinting may not be the best solution.
He estimates that, because the state would have to hire an outside agency to handle the records, each fbi background check would cost $50. That is too much for an applicant to pay, he says, and too expensive for the state board as well.
"Fbi checks are just not the way we want to do it," says the Colorado educator. "We don't fingerprint doctors or lawyers, and those professions are just as important."
Instead, the state board will recommend that criminal background checks be run through the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, using the applicant's name and social security number. The process would only show convictions within the state.
Mr. Lauglin has also proposed to the state commissioner that Colorado become part of the Teacher Identification Clearinghouse, a database providing the names of teachers whose licenses have been revoked, denied, or suspended.
The clearinghouse, which is being established by the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification, has been an informal information network between participating states for about 30 years. But three years ago, association officials decided to formalize the system through a computer database, expected to be completed July 1.
Through the database, which is to be updated each month, participating states will receive the names and social security numbers of teachers who have lost their licenses or been denied certification, going as far back as 1972. The service will be free to schools, paid for by yearly dues to the association.
Currently, only Alaska, Montana, Oregon, Vermont, and West Virginia are full participants in the system. Arizona, Kentucky, and New Jersey are in the process of joining the network, and several other states, including Colorado and Newinued on Following Page Continued from Preceding Page
York state, are considering the option.
Charles C. Mackey, superintendent of teacher education for the New York State Education Department and chairman of the committee developing the clearinghouse, said state certification officers will be responsible for finding out why an applicant's name appears on the database.
"We don't want people taking action without checking out the background," he said. "We want state officials to gather all the information available."
As Mr. Barbee in Fairfax County notes, however, names and numbers can be changed, while fingerprints cannot.
Last year, for example, a former high-school principal in Rockville, Md., was sentenced to 25 years in jail for sexually abusing several4boys he came in contact with through his work and his association with a Big Brother program.
The principal had been arrested on similar charges several years earlier in Vermont, but he feigned his own death, changed his name and social security number, and started a new life as an educator in Maryland.
The Liability Issue
According to Mr. Mackey, the state certification-directors' group is still working out the question of whether an erroneous listing in the database will make the clearinghouse liable for damages.
Liability, says Gwendolyn Gregory, deputy general counsel for the National School Boards Association, is a big part of the policy debate over sexual-abuse-prevention measures. Not only is the threat apparent in the event someone is wrongly accused, she points out, but schools can8also be held liable for not reporting suspected abuse.
All states provide that failure to report a crime is a misdemeanor, but educators may be specifically required by law in some states to report child abuse. In others, they may be judged to have civil liability for negligence of their duties.
Judy H. Warde, a legislative representative for the New York School Boards Association, says that the number of reported child-abuse cases has increased "dramatically" since the widely publicized death of an abused New York City child last fall. But the incoming reports have piled up on the desks of already overburdened law-enforcement agencies.
"So many of these cases turn out to be false," Ms. Warde says. "It is even more difficult now to weed out the actual cases."
But a recent court ruling may have raised the costs to schools of failing to weed out potential molesters.
A federal court in Oklahoma held last fall that schools can be held liable for hiring a convicted or suspected child molester--even in the absence of a law requiring criminal background checks. The jury in the case awarded the families of three pupils who had been molested by their teacher $134,000. (See Education Week, Nov. 4, 1987.)
Taking 'The First Step'
The policy debates now underway may produce slow results, says the fbi's Mr. Lanning, but at the least they will raise awareness.
"Child sex abuse is not a simple issue," he says. "There are many different ways to look at the problem, and administrators need to know their rights and what legally they have to do."
"But the first step," he adds, "is simply recognizing that child sex abuse can occur."