School Climate & Safety

Experts Convene on Sexual Abuse By Teachers

By Caroline Hendrie — April 09, 2003 6 min read
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Memories haunt Joseph G. CDeBaca as he looks back on what he calls his six-year “affair” with a former student that started when she was 14: The daily fear that the police would show up in his classroom to arrest him. The arresting officers who were waiting for him when he returned from a Hawaiian honeymoon. And the visits in jail from his then-6-year-old daughter.

Also gnawing at him is the thought that all of the anguish could have been avoided if someone had warned him early on about what he terms the “slippery slope” that can lead to sex with students.

“What would have really helped me is if someone like myself would have spoken to me when I was a student-teacher,” said the 37-year-old former mathematics teacher.

Mr. CDeBaca and another former Las Vegas teacher convicted of having sex with a student discussed their cases publicly here late last month at what was billed as the nation’s first conference focused solely on the issue of sexual abuse of students by school employees.

The March 26-29 gathering drew some 80 participants, mostly professionals on the front lines of responding to such misconduct. Many had little sympathy for the pain that the former teachers said their crimes had caused themselves and their families.

Still, national experts at the conference, which was sponsored by the Henderson, Nev.-based Nevada Coalition Against Sexual Violence, indicated that Mr. CDeBaca’s experience held lessons for educators around the country.

“The first thing that has to happen is schools of education and school districts have to publicly acknowledge that some educators abuse children,” said Robert J. Shoop, a professor of educational law at Kansas State University, in Manhattan, Kan.

That recognition, moreover, has to translate into a range of policies aimed at combating the problem, including specific instruction aimed at future educators, teachers, and students about the signs of such exploitation and the kinds of behavior that can lead to it, Mr. Shoop and other experts said.

“There are some people who are going to get over every barrier you put up,” said Mr. Shoop, “but you still have to put them up.”

Dearth of Data

No national statistics are kept on cases involving sex between students and school staff members, making it hard to gauge their prevalence.

A special project by Education Week that examined nearly 250 cases over a six-month period in 1998 found that the problem was more widespread than commonly realized, even though the percentage of educators who engaged in such abuse was small. (“A Trust Betrayed: Sexual Abuse by Teachers,” November-December 1998.)

One yardstick has come from the Washington-based American Association of University Women, which released reports in 1993 and 2001 based on national surveys focused on sexual harassment in schools. Reanalyzing data collected for the 2001 report, Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational administration at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., found that 9.6 percent of students in grades 8-11 reported some form of unwanted sexual attention from school employees.

One limitation of the data is that they do not capture sexual activity that students may have viewed as consensual.

“We really don’t have the full picture,” said Ms. Shakeshaft, who presented her findings at the conference. She said the absence of more precise data is hindering efforts to get policymakers and educators to pay attention to the issue.

Several actions should be on the top of districts’ to-do lists, experts at the conference said. For example, districts need to clarify to students and educators what behaviors are prohibited, and what people should do when they suspect wrongdoing.

That point was repeated by several speakers at the conference, which was organized by Terri Miller, the member-services coordinator for the Nevada coalition and the president of the national advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct, and Exploitation, or SESAME.

“You can’t be vague, like saying, ‘Don’t do anything inappropriate,’ ” Ms. Shakeshaft said. “You have to really spell it out.”

Districts also should require thorough background checks of job applicants that include interviews with people they did not list as references, and ask applicants whether they have ever faced allegations of sexual misconduct, she argued. If they lie, she said, that falsification of a public record will provide ready grounds for dismissal should fresh accusations arise.

Citing a long-standing concern that schools and districts allow employees suspected of sexual misconduct to slip away quietly to other jobs—a practice known as “passing the trash"—Ms. Shakeshaft and other speakers emphasized that educators have little to fear if they are honest about former employees’ histories when approached by prospective employers.

Paul Longo, a former director of the professional- practices division of the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, told conference attendees that the public had little idea how slapdash an effort is often made to examine employees’ backgrounds.

“Parents assume we’re doing a much better job than we do,” he said.

Easy to Hide

Both Mr. CDeBaca and the other convicted teacher who appeared with him at the conference said they had convinced themselves that they were exerting a positive influence in the lives of the students with whom they were having sex.

“I actually thought I was doing her a favor by taking her virginity,” Mr. CDeBaca said, adding that he had no intention of molesting students when he entered teaching. “I really wanted her to be with someone who cared about her. That’s how I justified it.”

And they both said it was not hard for them to hide what they were doing.

“People don’t want to see it,” said the other former teacher, Lora, a 35-year-old mother who asked that her last name not be used. “The education system doesn’t want to talk about this. They want to cover it up.”

Lora said teachers who molest students often don’t stand out from the crowd.

“If it could happen to someone like me, it could happen to anyone,” she said. “We are normal people, and we have normal lives.”

Warnings from colleagues might have helped her avoid “crossing the boundary” into sex with a 17-year-old girl whom she coached in softball at a high school during her first year of teaching, she added.

“Teachers have to start opening their eyes, and start helping each other,” she said.

Mr. CDeBaca, who served a year in prison, said he wanted to speak to future educators to offer his experience as a cautionary tale. And he suggested that educators should become more skeptical of their colleagues.

“There were a few educators who said, ‘This looks really inappropriate that you’re driving her home and spending time with her.’ My explanation was her parents wanted me to keep an eye on her,” he recalled. “Most teachers said, ‘Oh, it’s OK if the parents know.’ ”

“The atmosphere is such that it doesn’t stick out when you see a teacher outside the classroom with a student,” he added, “and it should.”

Mr. CDeBaca and Lora said they both suffered great shame and guilt, feelings their families had shared. Both explained that teaching was all they had ever wanted to do, and that being barred from the profession was painful for them.

Such remarks prompted an angry response from Shannon Knight, a 27-year-old mother of three from Pahrump, Nev. One of Ms. Knight’s former high school teachers from that community is in prison after pleading no contest to a charge of raping her during her senior year in 1994.

“You guys have no right to classify yourselves as a victim,” she said, before getting up and leaving the room in tears.

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