Presumed Guilty

By Winifred Conkling — May 01, 1991 2 min read

Each year, about 156,000 children report that they have been sexually abused, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Most of these cases involve abuse by parents or other family member, but some, unfortunately, involve the abuse of students by teachers. No one knows how many students complain of teacher sexual misconduct, in part because most of these cases are handled at the school or district level.

While an alarming number of sexual abuse cases prove to be true, many are shown to be false or are unsubstantiated. VOCAL (Victims of Child Abuse Laws), a California-based advocacy group for teachers and other people unjustly accused of abusing children, claims that as many as half of all reported abuse cases are proved false.

“The biggest problem is that abuse investigations aren’t conducted properly,” says George Wimberly, a child abuse consultant and co-founder of VOCAL. “Mental health professionals aren’t qualified to do felony investigations.”

Wimberly argues that the problem is compounded by the fact that judges listen to the opinions of these investigators. “The investigators assume the person [making the accusation] is telling the truth,” Wimberly says. “There’s no one who challenges these opinions. This is one crime where the individual is presumed guilty.”

Most of the cases handled by VOCAL involve divorce and child-custody cases, in which one parent accuses the other of sexually abusing a child so the accusing parent can win custody. He notes, however, that “there is also a trend toward schoolteachers and school counselors being accused. It’s linked to the increase in CAPP [child-abuse prevention programs] being presented in schools. They’re very suggestive, very leading.”

Wimberly does not object to all abuse-prevention programs, but he suggests that teachers carefully assess them before they are introduced at school. He also recommends that all teachers discuss student problems with administrators and other teachers. These colleagues could testify on the teacher’s behalf if a student later brought charges against the teacher in retaliation for issuing a failing grade or disciplining the student.

“Teachers need to remember that they can be too demonstrative,” Wimberly warns. “The arm on the shoulder, the one-on-one talks after school, unfortunately, can be used against a teacher.” Teachers should always be sensitive to the fact that even innocent behavior may be misconstrued.

For details, call VOCAL at (916) 863-7470.

A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as Teacher Beware