Teachers Who Abuse Children Often Escape Justice, Study Finds

By Anne Bridgman — May 09, 1984 5 min read

Arlington, Va--Teachers who abuse schoolchildren often escape prosecution, and fellow professionals often “blindly support” an accused colleague, an Illinois state’s attorney who has worked on cases against teachers said at a national conference here this month.

“Sexual abuse in our school systems is a pervasive problem,” added the director of a university-based center for the study of child abuse. “Since molesters go where the kids are, school systems are going to have their share of [cases].”

The two speakers were among a number of child-abuse experts who addressed the Third National Conference on Sexual Victimization of Children sponsored by the Division of Child Protection of Children’s Hospital National Medical Center. The overflow gathering drew some 1,300 social-service workers and law-enforcement officials from around the country for three days of discussion about the extent of the problem and how to establish social policies that might help curb it.

At a Senate Children’s Caucus hearing on the first day of the conference, Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, told participants that “by even the most conservative estimates, a child is sexually abused someplace in this country every two minutes.”

During the hearing, Senator Paula Hawkins, Republican of Florida, surprised her audience by revealing for the first time that she had been sexually abused by a neighbor when she was 5 years old. The man was brought to trial after several other children said they, too, had been abused, she said. But he was released because the judge decided the children were lying, she noted.

In his discussion of sexual abuse in the6schools, the state’s attorney, Madison County Prosecutor Donald Weber, pointed to the findings of a rape-study committee of the Illinois General Assembly that has analyzed sexual abuse over a 10-year period.

Escape Justice

Teachers, the committee said in a 1982 report, often escape charges of sexual abuse because they play on the fright of their young victims, according to Francine Z. Stein, executive director of the committee.

Most abused children do not tell their parents, and the parents of those who do speak out usually decide not to prosecute, Ms. Stein said. “There is no question that that has happened, and maybe with some justification, because children traditionally have not fared well in the criminal-justice system,” she added.

The legislative committee has tried to change state law to make the trial experience less traumatic, Ms. Stein said. (See related story below.) “But under the very best of model circumstances, it is still traumatic for the child,” Ms. Stein said.

Blind Support

Mr. Weber described a child-abuse case involving a Collinsville, Ill., teacher to illustrate a second finding of the legislative committee: that teachers and teachers’ organizations “blindly” support fellow teachers who are charged with sexually abusing students.

Two years ago, Richard Van Hook, a popular elementary-school teacher, was accused of sexually abusing several 5th-grade students, the lawyer said. The teacher was subsequently convicted of abusing one student, and two days before he was scheduled to be sentenced--at which time Mr. Weber said he planned to introduce evidence that at least 20 other girls had also beenabused--the teacher committed suicide.

Most schoolteachers in the district supported Mr. Van Hook throughout the investigation and trial, Mr. Weber said. The community sponsored a fund-raising dinner for him, a teachers’ group distributed bumper stickers asserting his innocence, and the school principal warned one girl’s mother against slandering the teacher.

“Here was a situation where a teacher apparently molested many, many, many children,” Ms. Stein said. “And when the charge was made, the first instinct of the district and the community was to protect him, not to believe the children.”

“We found that when a professional is uncovered [as a child abuser] within their own profession, that particular profession will close ranks in order to protect that person and protect their own, whereas the victims end up suffering even further [by] being ostracized and harrassed by coming forward,” said Pamela Klein, director of the Rape and Sexual Abuse Center at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville, Ill.

Ms. Klein suggested that teachers’ unions develop programs to discuss with their members the possibility that a colleague could be a child abuser and how to respond to that. There has to be, she said, “massive education of teachers.”

Without their support, and that of school officials, she pointed out, student victims can be traumatized again during an investigation and trial. In the Collinsville case, she said, the girls received very little support, and some teachers called the children names and distributed lists of the victims’ names to neighboring schools, in an attempt, they said,to warn other teachers about the girls’ made-up stories, Ms. Klein said.

Political Ramifications

There is no question, Mr. Weber noted, that accusing a teacher of sexually abusing a child “is a political hot potato like you could not believe.”

“The day before the grand jury [hearing in Mr. Van Hook’s case], the representative of the National Education Association showed up in my office and he told me ... ‘Mr. Weber, you’re up for [re-]election in 1984 and the schoolteachers are very upset with you. ... I’ve held them back for right now, but they have political-action committees [and] they’re pretty well organized. Things had better go right.”’

A police officer present in Mr. Weber’s office corroborated the incident in a CBS-television interview, portions of which were shown during the seminar.

Need for Policies

Because of such political and professional pressures, “every school should have a policy on child-abuse allegations, and they don’t, said Ms. Klein. “I think they need to sit down and talk about it. ... None do that I know of.”

Such policies should cover how to deal with complaints and which officials should review any charges against district employees, Ms. Klein explained.

In addition, school-district officials should make their employees aware of their legal obligation to report suspected cases of child abuse and neglect, said Ms. Stein of the legislative committee. “In Illinois, to this day, a lot of teachers aren’t aware of this obligation.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 1984 edition of Education Week as Teachers Who Abuse Children Often Escape Justice, Study Finds