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Cost Is High When Schools Ignore Abuse

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Second of three parts

If there's anything worse than a school employee who sexually abuses students, it's a school that doesn't care.

That's the consensus of an alarming number of students who are as bitter and angry at their schools as they are at the staff members who mistreated them. Convinced that they have been made victims a second time by a system that ranks adult interests above their own, many of these children and their families are taking their anger to court.

"You've got to do something to get their attention," said Robert L. Billinger, whose daughter sued the Boulder Valley School District in Colorado over its handling of a teacher who pleaded guilty last year to sexually molesting students. "If it takes a lawsuit, then so be it. You just can't let this keep happening to these kids."

In their defense, school administrators cite strong laws and union contracts that protect employees' job and privacy rights. And while it may be easy to identify disturbing behavior in hindsight, they say, proof is often elusive at the time.

"It's very hard to know with precision about all the relationships that exist between staff and students," said Gary Marx, a spokesman for the American Association of School Administrators.

Yet a six-month Education Week examination of schoolhouse sex abuse shows that, time after time, victims and their families present disturbing evidence that school officials have fallen short in their duty to keep students safe. These failings can prove costly: Out-of-court settlements or jury verdicts have awarded victims millions of dollars in damages in cases around the country.

Still, many school leaders remain more worried about lawsuits from employees accused of sexual misconduct than about legal action by the young victims. That balance may tilt even further, many victims' advocates fear, following a U.S. Supreme Court decision in June that made it harder for students to recover money damages from districts for sexual abuse by school employees.

"Now with this decision, I just think schools are going to be laissez faire," said Nan D. Stein, the director of a project on sexual harassment in the schools at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College. "It might have gotten better, but now it's going to get worse."

'Career-Ending Move'

Many administrators say it would be grossly unfair to draw broad inferences about how they handle sexual-abuse cases from the actions, or inaction, of a scattered few.

Many suspect that lawsuits are motivated more by the view that districts and their insurance companies have "deep pockets"--a potential source of sizable damage awards--than by any serious wrongdoing on the part of school officials. Most believe, in addition, that administrators today act swiftly against suspected abuse and would never consider turning a blind eye.

"I don't know anyone now who would do that," said Frederick N. Brown, a retired principal who is an associate executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals. "That's a career-ending move for a principal. If it's found that you've covered up or overlooked something that harmed a child, you might as well pack it in."

But, time and again, administrators across the country have been accused of doing just that.

And it is not only students and their families who are finding fault. In a small but growing number of cases, school officials are being disciplined and even prosecuted for allegedly mishandling instances of sexual misconduct by teachers, coaches, and other employees.

That's what happened recently in Palm Beach County, Fla., for example, after students said a 23-year-old band teacher molested them. Prosecutors have filed criminal charges against the school's principal for failing to report the alleged abuse. A guidance counselor with close ties to the alleged molester was fired and another was reprimanded.

The perception that schools' priorities are often stacked against students has left many victims and their families feeling bitterly disillusioned about their schools.

"What really offends me," said Elisa J. Page of Raymond, N.H., whose daughter repeatedly had sex with her teacher in the 8th grade, "is that the one place there are no child advocates is in the schools."

Inherent Conflict Seen

Much of the time, families' dissatisfaction boils down to a simple complaint: Schools allow adult interests--including concerns about legal liability and employee job rights--to come before student welfare.

An examination of lawsuits from around the country, as well as interviews with school officials, researchers, legal experts, and victims, reveals that the causes of this phenomenon are complex. Even for the most well-intentioned of administrators, a variety of factors contribute to the missteps and missed opportunities that victims and their families find so dispiriting. These include:

  • A lack of training that leaves many administrators with little understanding of the dynamics of staff-on-student sexual abuse or with clear guidance on how to handle such cases;
  • An absence of clear policies on how to address such incidents, including how to respond to victims' needs;
  • Laws that send confusing signals by recognizing only some types of employee-student sex as illegal, a particular problem when cases involve teenagers who are above the age of consent; and
  • Inadequate training in professional ethics for educators both before and during their careers.

For these reasons and more, a healthy skepticism by administrators about allegations against employees sometimes crosses the line into outright antagonism toward the accusers. Some critics argue that this response stems from an inherent conflict of interest educators face when they are effectively asked to police their own colleagues.

"The overwhelming issue that frustrates us is institutional hostility and defensiveness," said Edward F. Stancik, who has handled hundreds of such cases as the special commissioner of investigation for the New York City schools. "What we often see is an approach that hopes this is somehow--anyhow--going to go away. So any opportunity to make it go away will be taken."

W. Richard Fossey, a former school board lawyer who is now an associate dean of the college of education at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, says neither the critics nor the defenders of school officials' handling of abuse cases are entirely right.

"It's not correct to say that as a whole school administrators are indifferent, but I think some of them are," Mr. Fossey said. "And there are some unhealthy school cultures in which those kinds of things are winked at. You can see that from the court cases."

Covering Their Eyes?

Around the nation, plaintiffs accuse school officials of mishandling cases in ways large and small. Sometimes, for example, administrators refuse to believe students who allege wrongdoing. Conversely, officials may use students' denials or recantations as an excuse for inaction--ignoring the fact that many victims are manipulated, threatened, or coerced into protecting their abusers.

Other alleged failings commonly cited include neglecting to report suspected abuse to outside authorities; bungling internal investigations or conducting none at all; keeping no records of incidents of suspected misconduct; and allowing wrongdoers to remain in the system despite numerous complaints.

The most serious accusations are generally reserved for officials who allegedly receive evidence of sexual contact, but effectively cover their eyes. These actions may discourage other victims from coming forward and allow abuse to continue unchecked.

Such a claim was central to a pair of lawsuits brought by two students in 1995 and 1996 against the Galway Central School District in Saratoga County, N.Y. The lawsuits, which were later merged, charged that two administrators had repeatedly disregarded clear signs that a popular 8th grade teacher, Mark A. Taussig, was sexually abusing female students.

On one occasion, for example, the vice principal--who was then a close friend of Mr. Taussig's--learned that the teacher had been seen kissing a girl in his classroom, according to testimony that the plaintiffs' lawyer, Thomas J. Conway of Albany, presented during a state legislative hearing last winter. Instead of acting against the teacher, the lawyer said, the vice principal reprimanded the student.

Another time, according to the testimony, a student told the principal she had seen Mr. Taussig fondling a classmate's genitals in class. The principal then called in the alleged victim, who confirmed the incident, but then never questioned the teacher, Mr. Conway recounted.

Both the principal and the vice principal, neither of whom still works for the district, denied knowledge of the teacher's misdeeds to investigators. Mr. Taussig, now 33, pleaded guilty to statutory rape and sodomy charges in 1995, and last year the school board settled the suits by the two girls for a total of $2.3 million.

"We're smart enough to know that with the quantum of evidence out there that it was likely that a jury would rule against the school district," said lawyer Frank W. Miller, who handled the case for the 1,250-student district. "We knew that there were very serious accusations about what was done."

Peter G. Bowers, who took over as superintendent a few months before the allegations against Mr. Taussig became public, stressed that he moved aggressively once the long-standing problem came to his attention. And he said he has instituted a number of changes--including training for all school employees on detecting sexual abuse and harassment--in the wake of the Taussig case.

"I think we did an exemplary job of handling the situation," Mr. Bowers said. "We have a community that was really devastated by this, and we are really trying to put this behind us."

Suits by Employees Feared

Whether such cases have made much of an impression on school leaders is open to question. The top lawyer for the National School Boards Association, for one, says officials remain more wary of lawsuits by accused school employees than by victimized students.

"That's an hourly fear--employees suing for defamation, for violation of due process rights, for even suspending them to do an investigation," said Julie Underwood, the general counsel of the NSBA. As for legal action by students, she said, "the possibility is much more remote."

"I don't think enough of it is really going on to make it a powerful threat to the financial resources of schools," Ms. Underwood said.

Yet as they press their claims against districts and administrators--sometimes many years after the fact--some plaintiffs say they are determined to change that perception. This sentiment, some advocates say, has contributed to the fact that more victims are going public with their grievances than in the past.

"People were unwilling to have the victim further victimized by publicity," Mr. Conway said of earlier attitudes. "People are more willing to do that now. They recognize a responsibility not only to themselves but to others to do something about it."

Such was the case in California when two female students argued in a 1993 lawsuit that officials of the Pajaro Valley district south of San Jose repeatedly brushed aside allegations that a popular 7th grade teacher, Joseph Ancira, was molesting girls. In 1996, a jury found they were entitled to a total of $4.2 million in damages.

In a theme that is common to such suits, the plaintiffs said the principal mishandled the first 12-year-old plaintiff's disclosure in 1986 that she had been molested. For example, they allege, the principal told her father that there had been no prior complaints about the teacher, even though he had been acquitted on charges of fondling four girls a decade earlier.

The principal also called the teacher in to talk to the girl, allowing him to successfully pressure her to recant, the plaintiffs claim. Mr. Ancira, who eventually pleaded guilty to sex charges involving the second plaintiff, later sued the first girl's family for defamation. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

Pattern of Leniency Alleged

Despite the history of complaints against Mr. Ancira, he continued to coach several girls' sports teams and oversee student activities. The second plaintiff, Victoria R. Manley, said that after he had singled her out and helped her assume various school leadership posts, administrators routinely let him take her out of class to run errands with him during which he repeatedly molested her.

And despite the prior complaints and her obviously close relationship with the teacher, Ms. Manley said no school officials ever warned either her or her parents about him.

"My case was an accident waiting to happen," Ms. Manley, now 23, recalled in an interview. "They just let him go and do whatever he wanted."

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