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A Scandalous Issue

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I have been in the field of education for 20 years. I have taught in the most impoverished settings in this country, inner cities and remote Native American villages where the school was the only building in town with flush toilets and running water. I have taught in a suburban school designated as one of the best by a Presidential commission, and I have taught in a state penitentiary. I have worked at the university and community-college levels, and I have worked in a school for the gifted.

One topic of utmost concern to educators has been broached in polite society only recently, but its history is as lengthy as the history of the human race. It is a shame-filled and scandalous issue, and I contend that it is time for the education community to yank its head out of the sand and face the issue head on. Solutions are clearly within our grasp, and no other institution is as well situated as we are to attack the problem. I am writing of child sexual abuse.

According to experts, there are 4 million pedophiles in the United States. Using a conservative estimate of four victims for each pedophile, that equals 16 million victims. If 16 million children in this country had leprosy, we would make fighting that curse a national priority, yet we give child sexual abuse only the most cursory attention.

For years, I have believed that child sexual abuse is the best kept secret in American education. I have never lived in an area where some school employee--often a teacher or administrator--was not found to be sexually abusing students. Common sense tells us the profession attracts pedophiles, yet most districts do little to screen for that proclivity. In four states which passed legislation mandating background checks for people applying for jobs that involve working with children, during the first five months that the laws were in effect over 6,000 job applicants were found to have criminal histories of child sexual abuse.

Does your school district do such background checks? If you don't know, don't you think you should check and see?

In 1991, U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden sponsored a bill (S 1966) which would have instituted a program wherein such information would be accessible to school-personnel officers nationwide through a federal network. But the bill never made it out of the Judiciary Committee. Legislators need to know that their constituents want this law adopted. Will you take the time to write or call? I hope that you will. Clearly pedophiles have no place in our schools.

Our children need to be educated. They need to know that their bodies are theirs and that no one has the right to touch them on their private parts. They need to know that if it happens to them, it is never, never their fault and that to protect themselves and other children they must tell an adult whom they trust. This is a really simple message. Our youngest students can understand it. Why isn't every school in America teaching children this personal-safety information?

Teachers need training too. Too often they are apprised of state laws on reporting but no one bothers to give them in-service training on the behavioral symptoms a sexually abused child exhibits. A fairly comprehensive in-service experience would take less than an hour a year. Why aren't we doing it?

We cannot educate a child whose mind is replaying a videotape of sexual horror every day. Schools cannot end AIDS or homelessness or poverty, but we can fight this. Sixteen million children in this country live with the secret that people who are supposed to be keeping them safe are violating their bodies. Child sexual abuse thrives on secrecy and ignorance, and we have all been trained to fight ignorance. Molesters are family members, neighbors, child-care workers, clergy, police, school employees, and every other group you can conceive. Don't be naÃive and think that it's not happening in your area. It is. I ask you to consider what you are willing to do to rescue children from such horror.


Donna Murphy is the principal of Paul T. Albert Memorial School in Tununak, Alaska.

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