It’s depressingly easy to find news of educators’ sexually abusing their students. The headlines are full of it. Yet it’s difficult to find instances where the threat of punishment fits the crime. Even though research suggests that as many as 10 percent of students may experience some form of contact or noncontact abuse before they graduate from high school, the country’s education system seems to have institutionalized a blind-eye approach to the problem.
School personnel who may suspect misconduct feel powerless to report their friends and colleagues. Administrators handle cases internally to avoid lawsuits and bad publicity. And lawmakers evade responsibility for crafting tough legislation or a cohesive national policy, in part because of fears that they will inadvertently damage the reputations of all teachers. Moreover, because educator sexual abuse is such an unconscionable act, there is a lingering tendency to deny that it even exists.
In recent years, some states have updated their policies aimed at protecting students from abuse. But even in these instances, official responses often lack transparency, and systems for documenting offenders and prevalence rates are flawed. At times, policies are not implemented at all.
Legal and practical loopholes continue to allow sexual predators to enter the nation’s classrooms, despite the increased attention being given to the problem in recent years. These loopholes include the following:
• Prevention efforts are not required, or are not implemented. While some states may mandate that districts implement sexual-abuse-prevention programs, others continue to leave such efforts up to localities. But without accountability or state funding—and out of fear that prevention efforts will turn into witch hunts—local districts may never teach the proper prevention mechanisms: how to recognize the warning signs of abuse, awareness of reporting requirements, and, most importantly, ways to help children define clear boundaries of acceptable behavior—and know what to do when those lines are crossed.
• Cases are not reported to law enforcement or child protective services. Despite mandatory reporting laws, only an estimated 1 percent to 5 percent of cases in which students are sexually abused by educators are referred to law-enforcement or child-protective-services agencies. Cases are often handled internally, allowing the abuser to move on to another school without a criminal report or record. This can happen for many reasons. Administrators may worry about litigation or negative media coverage. They may have a personal relationship with the abuser. They may be heeding the wishes of parents and students, who want to avoid attention and the legal process.
In the absence of a proper investigation and legal proceedings, however, offenders are allowed to resign from their positions and often may be hired in a neighboring county or state, where they will have the opportunity to abuse other students. In general, it is estimated that sexual offenders will have abused an average of nine victims before they are reported to the legal system.
• Challenges arise in trying to convict offenders. Even if a case is reported by an administrator to the authorities, there is often not enough evidence to convict the offender. Many schools conduct internal investigations before reporting to law enforcement—giving offenders advance warning that enables them to dispose of evidence, change their story, and perhaps further intimidate their victims. Many children and their parents may not want to give testimony or depositions about their experiences. And, unfortunately, a child’s version of events is usually not sufficient evidence to convict an offender in a court of law. So charges are dropped or those accused plea-bargain to lesser crimes, which often do not place them on a sex-offender registry. Without a conviction, there is no record of the abuse report, and an offender can continue to victimize children and be passed on to neighboring school districts—often with a recommendation letter in hand. Even offenders who are convicted may never serve a day behind bars.
• Improper record-keeping hampers enforcement. Although a conviction should initiate teaching-license revocation, both districts and court systems are slow to process paperwork as the responsibility gets passed from one government entity to another. Because of this governmental red tape, offenders convicted of sex crimes in Virginia took an average of 583 days to have their licenses revoked by the state department of education. In October 2008, seven teachers convicted of sex crimes still held active teaching licenses. Despite criminal records, teachers have lied on their applications, moved to another state, and used their active teaching licenses to gain another job.
Child-protective-services records are only searchable by state: There is no national database. Court records are not searchable by type of employment or by demographic statistics. Thus it is impossible to search court criminal records for all cases of educator sexual abuse. This allows offenders to potentially move to other states and continue to abuse children without their criminal records following them.
As a doctoral student at the University of Virginia, I have done research on this problem, interviewing state and local school board members, superintendents, principals, counselors, and teachers, and analyzing educator-sexual-abuse court cases in Virginia. One disturbing example illustrates for me the challenges schools and governments face in combating this problem.
Michael Wayne Allee had been suspected of abuse when he served as a Lynchburg, Va., teacher and coach. When he left that post, he was hired to work at the Lynchburg juvenile detention center, where he was charged with indecent solicitation of a minor in 2001. After being dismissed, he went on to sexually abuse three more children in Bedford County, Va., in 2003, before being reported to child protective services. He later abused two more female students in Nelson County, Va. His teaching license was finally revoked by the state in October 2003. Allee was able to get hired twice after the initial complaint against him because he falsified information on his social-services background form, because the court proceedings from that first incident were not complete, and because he still had a valid teaching license during criminal proceedings.
While 42 states require background checks for all school employees, reporting loopholes can make it very easy for offenders to slip through undetected. They can lie about where they were previously employed, change a letter in their name, or put a different year as their birth date. Coaches and nonlicensed school employees may not be required to have a background check at all. And many red-flag crimes do not by law put the perpetrator on the sex-offender registry, making criminal records in this area difficult to find. In addition, the national sex-offender registry is not accurately updated with state information, making it even more difficult to find an offending teacher’s criminal record.
Too many cases linger without resolution, or come to a resolution (often in secret) that doesn’t protect students at all. There continue to be too many ways for sexual predators to enter the classroom and have the opportunity to abuse children. States need to issue more-specific, enforceable guidelines for evaluation and accountability to make sure policies on sexual abuse by educators are effective and properly implemented in localities.
Our “best practices” for handling the problem of sexual abuse in schools are hardly that. Predators will remain in our classrooms until government agencies acknowledge this fact and make meaningful changes to protect children.
A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2010 edition of Education Week as Keeping Sexual Predators Out of Classrooms