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N.Y.C. Panel Chides School Officials For Handling of Child Sexual Abuse

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Schools often mishandle complaints of child sexual abuse in ways that traumatize victims and allow abusers to remain in schools, according to a special commission established by New York City officials.

The panel of more than 60 child-welfare advocates, mental-health experts, educators, and union representatives found that few school systems take the steps necessary to prevent the sexual abuse of their students.

"Rarely has there been a pro-active, comprehensive effort to prevent sexual abuse or to prepare an effective response before abuse occurs," the report, issued late last month, says.

The panel found that, in far too many cases, well-meaning district employees undertake their own inquiries, which can jeopardize subsequent investigations or needlessly damage reputations and careers.

In the cases reviewed by the panel, school employees often reported complaints to principals, rather than to the proper authorities. As a result, the abuse often was not reported promptly, or at all, especially if the principal feared damage to the school's reputation.

At Greater Risk

The commission examined 110 substantiated cases of sexual abuse handled since January 1991 by the system's special commissioner of investigation.

Special-education students, who make up 7 percent of the system's student population, accounted for a disproportionate 14 percent of victims.

Older students were also at greater risk. Those ages 13 and older accounted for 78 percent of the victims of sexual abuse by employees.

Nevertheless, junior high and high schools continue to offer students little instruction and guidance on how to avoid sexual abuse, the report says.

The panel also criticized the follow-up investigations of complaints. Often, victims were traumatized a second time when they were forced to tell their stories over and over to investigators, medical personnel, social workers, and lawyers.

The accused, meanwhile, often remained on the school system payroll for months or years while administrative hearings dragged on, the report says. Of the 110 cases, about 25 remain tied up in administrative proceedings, according to the office of the special commissioner for investigation.

The sexual-abuse commission issued a list of recommendations designed to make New York City a model for rooting sexual abusers out of schools.

Report's Recommendations

Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines last month embraced the panel's recommendations, which also have union support.

Along with extensive employee training, the panel's recommendations include:

  • Sending employees a strong message that the school system will not tolerate inappropriate sexual behavior.
  • Coordinating responses to abuse complaints so that children are not subjected to multiple interviews.
  • Questioning references of prospective employees and screening and fingerprinting all volunteers.
  • Working with unions to speed the process of removing alleged sexual abusers.
  • Removing privacy protections that enable people determined to have been abusers to move to other schools.

Copies of the report are available from the Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District, 25 Broadway, 8th floor, New York, N.Y. 10004.

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