Meeting Concerns About Sex Abuse in Schools

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Recent allegations of sexual abuse in schools and day-care centers have left both teachers and parents anxious. Though more abuse takes place in homes than in classrooms, many people more willingly suspect school personnel than their friends and neighbors.

The written character in Chinese for the concept of crisis combines the symbols for danger and opportunity. Indeed, current concerns about abuse in schools hold grave perils for educators and students. Many of the measures already enacted by legislators and regulatory agencies to screen out possible abusers provide sometimes inaccurate and potentially misleading information. Witch hunts unleashed across the country would drive innocent people--and effective teachers--out of the classroom.

And it would be equally sad if fear of accusation made teachers less affectionate toward children--doubly tragic in fact, since evidence suggests that sex offenders were often starved for affection as children themselves.

But in this crisis also lies an opportunity to bring about positive changes in early-childhood education, as educators work to prevent abuse in their schools and reassure frightened parents. By taking sensible steps to curb the likelihood of abuse--and of false accusations--schools can assuage the public's worries and obviate the need for unwarranted and dangerous regulations on teachers.

In reacting to the threat of abuse, policymakers have imposed such measures as fingerprinting, criminal-record checks, and the consultation of "abuse registries."

New York law, for example, now requires that schools and day-care centers both fingerprint all employees--to see if they have criminal records--and check their names against the state's "registry of known abusers."

At first glance, these policies may appear prudent precautions to protect children. But in their current form, such procedures can potentially jeopardize the reputations and careers of innocent teachers.

Despite its name, New York's registry turns out to be a listing of those against whom abuse has been alleged, not proven in court.

Names may be reported anonymously by angry neighbors, former spouses, and complete strangers. The registry was not set up to assess guilt or innocence--and the already huge number of false allegations is rising.

Fully 80 percent of the cases of sexual abuse reported in 1985 were later determined to be unfounded--up from 40 percent five years earlier.

And those accused have no benefit of legal due process in clearing their names. The people who follow up allegations are neither criminal investigators nor trained social workers, but rather "caseworkers." A study of these workers in 1985 concluded that they tend to be willing to use hearsay, unwilling to admit mistakes, and blind to contradictory evidence.

Nonetheless, the director of New York City's Agency for Child Development ordered acd-funded centers to suspend immediately without pay any employee listed in the registry, and further held that such employees need not be reinstated--even if they could prove their innocence.

Arrest records, too, are notoriously incomplete and inaccurate. While school administrators should have access to information about convictions for child abuse, the danger remains that employees may be suspended or dismissed for convictions that bear no relationship to fitness for employment.

And those arrested without sufficient evidence or by mistake may nevertheless have a record. Norma Rollins, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union's privacy project, says cases of mistaken identity may be rare in affluent suburbs, but are all too common in the ghetto.

Since members of minority groups--especially men--tend to have more scrapes with the law, barring from school employment anyone with an arrest record would exclude many innocent teachers whom schools badly need. The sad truth is that many competent, caring teachers have been arrested.

At Manhattan's Riverside Church Weekday School, where I taught for seven years, our efforts to respond to fears of abuse did not prevent us from losing staff members who objected as civil libertarians to being fingerprinted. Though some of these young idealists might have left early-childhood education eventually, this requirement hastened their departure--and deprived students of several highly talented educators.

I agreed, under protest, to submit to fingerprinting--only to discover when I got downtown that New York City's department of investigation failed to ask me for a single piece of identification: Anyone with anything to hide could have had a friend fingerprinted in his place.

What legal and administrative steps, then, can educators and policymakers take to protect both students and staff? First, administrators must be trained to approach with skepticism any information about employees' or job applicants' legal problems that is not based on criminal convictions for offenses directly relevant to their work. If told that someone has been arrested or named on a list of alleged abusers, administrators should immediately ask, "Was there a conviction?"

Second, school officials should lead efforts to establish reliable records that might truly screen out abusers. In virtually none of the school sex-abuse scandals to date would fingerprinting staff for criminal-record checks or consulting state-registry information have produced any clue that the accused should not have worked with children.

Not only is there no nationwide file of those convicted of physically or sexually abusing children, in most communities there is no local listing to which school officials can turn. Administrators usually do not even have access to information on abusers currently serving probation--whose names and current addresses presumably are known. Rather than stampeding to consult unreliable records, concerned groups should be demanding the creation of files based on relevant criminal convictions that would be accessible to school officials.

Potentially more helpful than externally imposed policies in allaying apprehensions about abuse, however, may be preventive procedures undertaken in individual schools. Indeed, beyond reassuring parents, such steps may improve educational programs.

For example, as a matter of school policy, teachers should leave open their classroom doors. Open doors tell parents, "We have nothing to hide." They also allow administrators to observe classrooms without intruding, a practice that, in turn, increases the chance that any abuse will be discovered quickly.

Even where school entrances must be locked for security, the doors to classrooms can remain open. If the hallways are sometimes noisy, activities requiring quiet, such as reading, can be located away from the doorway.

Similarly, schools might reinforce their commitment to team teaching. At the early-childhood and early-elementary levels, teachers are commonly expected to supervise naprooms, hug children frequently, and take them to the bathroom. Teachers who are wrongly accused need someone to vouch for their innocence, but young children who testify on a teacher's behalf are often not considered credible witnesses.

Team teaching not only provides a mechanism to help refute spurious accusations but also--by reducing the chance that abuse will occur--makes it safe for teachers to continue to be affectionate with young children.

And greater use of team teaching in early education would help alleviate educators' feelings of isolation and provide greater safety in emergencies.

While most schools do not have the funds to double their teaching staff, some of the same benefits can be achieved through greater use of aides and volunteers. Schools should weigh the expense of paying more salaries against the less obvious costs of defending themselves in court or losing bond and tax elections because of declining public confidence in their ability to protect students.

The abuse crisis can also serve as an occasion for improving consultation between administrators and teaching staff. At Riverside, for example, some teachers' meetings were used to discuss the limits of physical discipline, parents' fears of sexual abuse, and appropriate responses to indications of abuse. Case conferences with a consulting psychiatrist helped teachers learn about the classic symptoms of abuse--withdrawal, low self-esteem, preoccupation with genitals, and the imposition of sex-play on other children--and in several instances helped uncover abuse taking place at home.

These conferences also helped keep teachers from overreacting. During a television campaign aimed at educating children about abuse, one 6-year-old at the school said that she hated her father because he touched her. By pooling bits and pieces of information, the teaching staff was able to see that nothing the child had said constituted experience of incest and that her very words had been taken from a tv spot aired the previous day--which her teachers happened not to have seen.

Further questioning of the child revealed that she actually resented the coming de6parture of a mostly absent father whom she wished would embrace her more often. What she hated him for was leaving. Without such consultation, her teachers might have felt compelled to report the father as a suspected abuser.

This sort of cooperation between administrators and teachers can also help schools defend themselves against false allegations of abuse.

In seeking to reassure worried parents, schools can also redouble their efforts to make them feel that the school is open to them, encouraging them to observe their children and, when appropriate, to involve themselves in classroom activities. During the interviews with parents at the beginning of the school year at Riverside, teachers casually reminded them that the classroom door was always open, that no physical discipline was ever used, and that they were always welcome to visit unannounced.

Schools should teach students to say "no" to unwelcome physical contact. At Riverside, we taught even the youngest children to say "I don't like that" when someone grabs, hits, or otherwise touches them in a way they don't want. A number of stories written for children deal forthrightly with physical and sexual abuse and what children can do if they encounter it.

The nursery school at the church I now pastor brought in county-funded safety educators to teach 3- and 4-year-olds about a broad range of child-safety issues, including how to resist and report abuse. Another school--the Crosstown Day Care Center in Tulsa, Okla.--created trust with parents by offering them an evening program on protecting their children from abuse, and then preparing a program for young students on appropriate and inappropriate contact. This two-part effort helped parents cope with their own fears and recognize that the school was their ally, not their enemy, in fighting abuse.

There is danger in the current crisis--danger of losing good teachers, of educators' having to forsake affectionate behavior toward children.

But there is also much opportunity: to improve education, to rebuild public trust, to teach children to protect themselves, and to shape policies that will really safeguard them.

Vol. 08, Issue 01, Page 56

Published in Print: September 7, 1988, as Meeting Concerns About Sex Abuse in Schools
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