Student Well-Being

Report Examining Sexual Misconduct Taps Some Nerves

By Caroline Hendrie — July 14, 2004 6 min read
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A report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education on school employees’ sexual misconduct with students is drawing fire from national education groups and has attracted only qualified support from the agency itself.

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Read the accompanying table, “Words of Warning.”

Required under the No Child Left Behind Act, the report by sexual-harassment researcher Charol Shakeshaft concludes that such misconduct is “woefully understudied,” but that as many as one in 10 students may be subjected to some form of it during their K-12 careers. A draft version of the report was made available to Education Week when Ms. Shakeshaft submitted it to the department in late February. (“Sexual Abuse by Educators Is Scrutinized,” March 10, 2004.)

The department sent a final version of the report to Congress on June 30 with a preface signed by Deputy Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok saying the department had “reservations” about the document’s scope. Specifically, the preface noted that the report examined all forms of sexual misconduct against students by school employees, rather than the narrower category of “sexual abuse” as defined in federal criminal statutes. Mr. Hickok called that broader focus “potentially confusing.”

Despite those reservations, Mr. Hickok called the issue “of critical importance” and said the Education Department is “currently investigating ways to obtain more reliable evidence on the extent of sexual abuse in schools.”

“Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature,” is available from the Education Department. (Requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader.)

“Although the author’s findings are in part broader than the congressional mandate and therefore could be perceived by some as insufficiently focused, we believe that sexual misconduct in whatever form it takes is a serious problem in our nation’s schools and one about which parents and taxpayers have a right to be informed,” Mr. Hickok said in the preface.

Meanwhile, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the National School Boards Association all said the report could create a false impression in the public’s mind that the physical sexual abuse of students by educators is rampant in schools. The NEA called the report’s tone alarmist, and the NSBA suggested that it diminished the problem by appearing to overstate it.

Charol Shakeshaft

For her part, Ms. Shakeshaft challenged critics to produce data supporting their views, and said she found the Education Department’s mixed message about the report confusing. Still, she was encouraged “that the department thinks this is important.”

“I’m happy that they’ve made it a national issue and that they’ve given it national attention,” she said. “I think that’s great.”

Estimate Is Debated

Titled “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature,” Ms. Shakeshaft’s report does not feature fresh research, but instead draws conclusions from past studies, books, newspaper accounts, and other sources.

It describes the characteristics and patterns of schoolhouse sexual predators; the consequences of misconduct for abusers and targets; schools’ response to allegations; federal and state laws and policies; and recommended prevention practices. It also lays out 15 recommendations for action, and proposes 12 research topics for further study.

Ms. Shakeshaft’s review found a dearth of hard data on the prevalence of sexual misconduct in the schools. No national repository of such information exists, and no studies have yielded authoritative figures.

In a finding that drew fire from education groups, she concluded that the best estimate is that 9.6 percent of students in public schools—some 4.5 million—are likely the targets of unwanted sexual attention by a teacher, coach, administrator, or other school employee sometime during their school years.

That figure was drawn from Ms. Shakeshaft’s reanalysis of data from a survey of students done for “Hostile Hallways,” a 2001 report on sexual harassment in schools by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation.

Based on responses from a nationally representative sample of 2,065 students in grades 8-11, the reanalysis found that 9.6 percent of the respondents reported experiencing some form of harassment by a school employee, ranging from unwelcome sexual comments to coerced sex. Of the total, 8.7 percent reported incidents involving no physical contact, while 6.7 percent reported only physical-contact misconduct. Because some students reported both types, the sum of those percentages exceeds 9.6 percent.

Michael Pons, a spokesman for the NEA, said that schools are “open, public, accountable institutions,” and that “it’s alarmist to suggest that children are drastically at risk in the public schools of being victims of sexual abuse.”

The 2.7 million-member union does not “dismiss the importance of eradicating sexual harassment in the schools,” Mr. Pons said, but is concerned about the report’s broad focus.

“Most people, especially parents, will not read the report and understand some of the nuances of it,” he said. “Instead, they will hear that one in 10 children is sexually abused in school.”

John O. Mitchell, the deputy director of educational issues for the 1.3 million-member AFT, said the report “lumps together all of the misconduct items, everything from inappropriate remarks to criminal behavior, and we really need to distinguish between the two.”

Julie Underwood, the general counsel of the NSBA, echoed that view, saying that the “sound bites” from the report were misleading.

“I don’t want people to negate the problem because of a credibility issue,” she said, adding that she agreed that the problem needs further study.

“At least on the formal level, schools have enacted policies, states have enacted statutes, state departments of public instruction have enacted regulations, so in the formal structure, people have moved forward to address the issue,” she said. “But in terms of the informal, we don’t know enough.”

Timing Questioned

More study is exactly what is urged in the report by Ms. Shakeshaft, a professor in the department of foundations, leadership, and policy studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

While she reviewed nearly 900 sources addressing some form of educator sexual misconduct, she found only 14 studies from the United States and five from Canada or the United Kingdom that included an “empirical or systematic analytic foundation.”

Among them were two series by Education Week, one that examined nearly 250 cases of educator sexual misconduct over a six-month period, and a second that featured a survey of state policies. (“A Trust Betrayed: Sexual Abuse by Teachers,” November-December 1998, and “A Trust Betrayed: Update on Sexual Misconduct in Schools,” April-May 2003.)

Reacting to criticism of the report, Ms. Shakeshaft said that “not one critic of this work … has said, ‘I don’t think this is accurate, and here is empirical work that refutes this study.’ That’s what I would expect if you were going to immediately discount it.”

“I’m not invested in my own data,” she added. “I’m invested in finding out what’s really happening. You’ve got better data, put it out there.”

Following the report’s release, a spokesman for the Education Department said agency officials were still debating their next step.

Brian W. Jones

“There’s nothing discrete that’s been planned at this point,” said Brian W. Jones, the department’s general counsel. “But I do think it would be valuable for us to take this study and use this as a launching pad to take a more comprehensive look.”

The department released the report shortly after most schools had closed for the summer—and four months after Ms. Shakeshaft had submitted it. That timing was decried as “horrible” by a national authority on educator sexual misconduct, who strongly defended the study.

“The timing is very unfortunate in terms of getting on the radar screen of educators,” said Robert J. Shoop, an education law professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., and the author of the newly released book Sexual Exploitation in Schools: How to Spot It and Stop It.

“Had it come out the first week of school, parents and school board members would have been asking, ‘What are we going to be doing about this?’ As it is, by then it’s going to be old news, and they’re not going to be asking those questions.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Report Examining Sexual Misconduct Taps Some Nerves

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