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
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
How To Tackle The Biggest Hurdles To Effective Tutoring
Learn how districts overcome the three biggest challenges to implementing high-impact tutoring with fidelity: time, talent, and funding.
Content provided by Saga Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Reframing Behavior: Neuroscience-Based Practices for Positive Support
Reframing Behavior helps teachers see the “why” of behavior through a neuroscience lens and provides practices that fit into a school day.
Content provided by Crisis Prevention Institute
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Mathematics Webinar
Math for All: Strategies for Inclusive Instruction and Student Success
Looking for ways to make math matter for all your students? Gain strategies that help them make the connection as well as the grade.
Content provided by NMSI

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Video WATCH: Columbine Author on Myths, Lessons, and Warning Signs of Violence
David Cullen discusses how educators still grapple with painful lessons from the 1999 shooting.
1 min read
School Climate & Safety From Our Research Center How Much Educators Say They Use Suspensions, Expulsions, and Restorative Justice
With student behavior a top concern among educators now, a new survey points to many schools using less exclusionary discipline.
4 min read
Audrey Wright, right, quizzes fellow members of the Peace Warriors group at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Wright, who is a junior and the group's current president, was asking the students, from left, freshmen Otto Lewellyn III and Simone Johnson and sophomore Nia Bell, about a symbol used in the group's training on conflict resolution and team building. The students also must memorize and regularly recite the Rev. Martin Luther King's "Six Principles of Nonviolence."
A group of students at Chicago's North Lawndale College Prep High School participates in a training on conflict resolution and team building on Thursday, April 19, 2018. Nearly half of educators in a recent EdWeek Research Center survey said their schools are using restorative justice more now than they did five years ago.
Martha Irvine/AP
School Climate & Safety 25 Years After Columbine, America Spends Billions to Prevent Shootings That Keep Happening
Districts have invested in more personnel and physical security measures to keep students safe, but shootings have continued unabated.
9 min read
A group protesting school safety in Laurel County, K.Y., on Feb. 21, 2018. In the wake of a mass shooting at a Florida high school, parents and educators are mobilizing to demand more school safety measures, including armed officers, security cameras, door locks, etc.
A group calls for additional school safety measures in Laurel County, Ky., on Feb. 21, 2018, following a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in which 14 students and three staff members died. Districts have invested billions in personnel and physical security measures in the 25 years since the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Claire Crouch/Lex18News via AP
School Climate & Safety How Columbine Shaped 25 Years of School Safety
Columbine ushered in the modern school safety era. A quarter decade later, its lessons remain relevant—and sometimes elusive.
14 min read
Candles burn at a makeshift memorial near Columbine High School on April 27, 1999, for each of the of the 13 people killed during a shooting spree at the Littleton, Colo., school.
Candles burn at a makeshift memorial near Columbine High School on April 27, 1999, for each of the of the 13 people killed during a shooting spree at the Littleton, Colo., school.
Michael S. Green/AP