School Climate & Safety

Feds Urged to Do More to Track School Sexual Abuse

By Evie Blad — February 04, 2014 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 5 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story used a previous name for an advocacy group formed to prevent sexual abuse of students in schools. The group is now called Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct, and Exploitation, or SESAME.

Federal agencies are not doing enough to track incidents of child sexual abuse by school personnel, and they are failing to provide adequate guidance to states and districts about how to prevent and respond to such acts, a report by the Government Accountability Office says.

The report, released last week, depicts a fractured system of background checks that often fail to detect potential red flags, and divergent and sometimes conflicting policies between states and districts for reporting, investigating, and responding to suspected cases of sexual misconduct.

While the U.S. departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services have resources to guide prevention efforts, none has taken a lead role in collecting data or coordinating a federal response, and many state and local agencies are unaware such guidance exists, the report says.

“The sexual abuse of students and sexual misconduct by public K-12 school personnel is a complex problem, and such behavior is particularly egregious because schools are entrusted with educating the nation’s children,” says the report, compiled after investigators surveyed state education agencies in every state and the District of Columbia, visited six school districts, and reviewed files from five sexual-abuse investigations. “There are no simple solutions to this problem, and, although states and school districts are taking some positive steps, current efforts are clearly not enough.”

The prevalence of sexual abuse of children by school personnel is unknown, in part because some cases go unreported. A 2004 report for the U.S. Department of Education found that nearly 9.6 percent of students are victims of sexual abuse by school personnel at some point in their education careers.

The report synthesizes discussions over several decades regarding sexual abuse of students. A 1998 investigative series by Education Week, updated in 2003, found that districts are often unprepared to identify and respond to such behavior because, unaware of its prevalence, they consider it a rare and idiosyncratic occurrence.

“Where there’s no data, there’s no problem,” said Terri L. Miller the president of the Las Vegas-based Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, or SESAME. She called the report “a positive step” in raising awareness among parents and school administrators about the frequency of abuse by school personnel.

Much ‘to Be Done’

In a response appended to the report, Deborah S. Delisle, the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said the department will explore strategies to better track data, revise its training materials to reach a wider audience, and examine ways to better collaborate with other federal agencies.

“As this report acknowledges, the department has voluntarily undertaken efforts to address the issue of sexual abuse of students,” Ms. Delisle wrote. “Still, there remains much that needs to be done.”

In the survey, 46 states said they require background checks of applicants for jobs in public schools, but their methods vary widely. Thirty-six states use both state and federal sources of criminal data to gather information on applicants, but others only check for state criminal violations. And while most states require background checks for teachers, not all do for other school staff or volunteers, the study says.

Further, the report says such checks are often incomplete because state sex-offender registries rely on local courts for up-to-date information and because data are difficult to track between states.

And inappropriate behavior by educators that may signal their plans for sexual misconduct is not always illegal.

For example, a teacher may “groom” students for abuse, gaining trust by singling them out in class, touching them excessively, or communicating with them frequently through social media, the report says. Those behaviors are frequently prohibited by state codes of professional conduct, but those standards generally only apply to staff members with teaching licenses. What’s more, states inconsistently enter such violations into the national data clearinghouse used in some state background checks.

By way of example, the report cites a male 2nd grade teacher who was convicted of aggravated criminal sexual abuse of 10 girls in two districts.

The first district disciplined the teacher for keeping pornography on his work computer, and his contract was not renewed after a parent complained of inappropriate behavior from the teacher, who told her daughter that she reminded him of a movie star and often stared at her. Neither instance triggered a criminal complaint, and the information was not relayed to the second district, which discovered his sexual behavior after another parent’s complaint.

Prevention and response efforts are also weakened because of uncertainty about whether the questionable behavior should be reported, who should report it, and to whom, the study concludes.

Some districts require staff members to report suspected abuse to school administrators, who may conduct their own investigation before contacting law-enforcement or child-welfare authorities—a step that can delay reporting and complicate investigations, the report says.

Conflicting goals and methods among agencies may also get in the way. For example, child-welfare groups may act quickly to prevent future abuse, which can tip off suspects, while police sometimes like to surprise suspects, the report says.

Such conflicts are eased in some areas by formalized coordination among agencies, and they could be further addressed by clear federal guidance, the report says.

The GAO also recommends that the Education Department do more to inform school leaders of their obligations under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which requires schools to have procedures in place to protect students from sexual violence by school personnel.

Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who requested the GAO investigation, said he plans to request congressional hearings aimed at “addressing the shortcomings of child-abuse laws and regulations.”

Mr. Miller introduced a bill last year that would require criminal-history checks for all public school employees, applicants for employment, and contractors with unsupervised access to students. The House of Representatives passed the bill in October.

“We must take every available and reasonable step we can to ensure that the people and schools that are entrusted with our children every day protect them from abuse,” he said in a statement.

A version of this article appeared in the February 05, 2014 edition of Education Week as Report Highlights Weaknesses in Tracking School Sexual Abuse

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