Student Well-Being

Sex With Students: When Employees Cross the Line

By Caroline Hendrie — December 02, 1998 17 min read
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First of three parts

It may start with a warm smile or an affectionate hug. A ride home from practice or a tutoring session after school. Such innocent, harmless scenes play out countless times in thousands of schools each day.

But often, far more often than many people think, those friendly moments mask the first steps by a teacher or coach down the road that leads to sexual relations with their young charges and the shattering of a sacred trust.

At the national level, no one keeps track of how often educators and other school employees cross that line. Clearly, the vast majority of staff members take seriously the responsibility placed on their shoulders.

A Trust Betrayed

But, at a minimum, hundreds of cases involving sexual abuse of students are unfolding publicly at any given time around the nation, a six-month examination of the issue by Education Week shows. And interviews with scores of law-enforcement officials, researchers, and educators reveal that far more misconduct takes place--and far more students are made victims--than is ever made public.

Despite growing awareness in the past two decades of the indelible scars sexual abuse creates in young lives, little concerted national attention has been paid to the problem in schools or to the need for aggressive efforts to curtail it.

Though there are signs that the issue is gaining prominence, many members of the education community cling to the notion that sex between teachers and students is a rare and idiosyncratic occurrence.

Such an attitude creates an educational system that too often fails to prevent such abuse from happening and too often fails to place the welfare of young victims at the forefront when cases do arise.

“There’s a state of denial that most educators are in where they just can’t imagine that anyone in their profession could harm a child,” said Robert J. Shoop, a professor of educational administration and leadership at Kansas State University. “So they take the attitude that this happens so rarely that it isn’t a topic that we need to spend much time on.”

Yet few people whose lives have been touched by the problem share that view.

“Students commit suicide over this, or they are crippled emotionally for life,” said Terri L. Miller, a mother of four from Pahrump, Nev., who successfully lobbied last year for tougher laws in her state to bar educators from sexual relations with students. “As a parent, I send my children to school to be educated, not to be abused by the person I’m entrusting them with.”

From Harassment to Rape

Faced with a dearth of national data on sex offenses against students by school employees, Education Week conducted a nationwide search through newspapers and computer databases of active cases over a six-month period, from March through August of this year.

That examination turned up 244 cases, involving everything from unwanted touching to years-long sexual relationships and serial rape. Among them are:

• A 34-year-old head football coach from Banning, Calif., who was convicted in August of taking a 16-year-old girl out of class to have sex at local motels;

• A 37-year-old home economics teacher in Rome, Ga., who resigned from her middle school in May amid charges that she had sex with a 15-year-old male student during spring break in Florida and at her home;

• A 28-year-old coach who pleaded guilty in October to secretly videotaping one of his high school volleyball players as she changed clothes in a school bathroom in Anita, Iowa;

• A 37-year-old high school English teacher and track coach from Norfolk, Va., who was convicted in September of indecent liberties with a minor after fathering a baby born to a 16-year-old student last year;

• A 52-year-old high school principal in Oakland, Maine, who pleaded no contest in May to coaxing a girl to join him for sex in his hotel room at an out-of-town conference; and,

• A 46-year-old former principal and 6th grade teacher who pleaded guilty in August after he admitted to having sex with four 11-year-old boys in Alexandria, Va., between 1977 and 1991.

Data on Problem Scarce

Sexual misconduct against students by school employees wears many faces.

In the cases examined by Education Week, the suspects ranged from 21 to 75 years old, with an average age of 28. More than seven out of 10 were teachers, but principals, janitors, bus drivers, and librarians were also among the accused. While most were men, 20 percent were women.

The students ranged from kindergartners to high school seniors. Two-thirds of the cases involved female students; about a third involved boys.

And in only two of the cases had authorities ultimately concluded that students had fabricated claims.

In more than two-thirds of the cases, students were of high school age--14 years and older. Those cases--especially ones involving students on the verge of adulthood who often acquiesced to the sex--may appear less clear- cut and more confusing for educators, law-enforcement officials, students, and community members alike.

Abuse happens in all kinds of schools: public and private, religious and secular, rural and urban, rich and poor. The setting may be in the school building itself--everywhere from closets and classrooms to showers and stairwells--or off campus in cars, motel rooms, school buses, or at the student’s or employee’s home.

In a few cases, the relationship stretches over months or even years. In others, the abuse amounts to a spur-of-the-moment assault. And employees may target one student or many; in nearly half the cases, the suspects were accused of abusing more than one student.

Many of the cases involve alleged wrongdoing that had occurred in recent weeks or months. But victims often do not come forward immediately, and a few of the cases involve lawsuits or investigations of conduct dating back years or even decades.

National statistics on child sexual abuse do not isolate offenses by educators against students, so the few researchers who study the problem in schools tend to rely instead on surveys that ask students and adults whether they have been sexually abused and by whom.

Among the most prominent of those efforts was a 1993 study by the American Association of University Women Foundation. That survey, based on data from more than 1,600 students in grades 8 through 11, focused on everything from sexual comments to coerced sex.

It found that 81 percent of students reported some form of harassment or abuse, most of it at the hands of fellow students. Of those who said they had been targets, 18 percent--25 percent of girls and 10 percent of boys-- said they had been harassed or abused by a school employee.

Because of the lack of data, it is unclear whether sexual abuse of students in schools is on the rise. Many legal experts cite an increase in civil lawsuits over such cases in recent years. But they generally attribute that less to an actual increase in misconduct than to a change in the legal climate following a 1992 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that made it easier for victims of sexual harassment to win damages against schools.

“It’s hard to say if there’s more underlying episodes of abuse than 10 or 20 years ago, or if it was just less reported back then,” noted Thomas A. Conway, a lawyer from Albany, N.Y., who represents victims in civil lawsuits stemming from such cases.

Patterns Repeat

The behavior that a small subset of school employees engages in is so risky--and so repugnant--that many people assume they could spot it a mile away. But the reality is that it often continues unchecked for years, sometimes by the people least likely to come under suspicion.

In some cases, accused educators have long been dogged by whispered speculation, rumors, and even outright complaints of inappropriate behavior. They may move from school to school, district to district, or state to state, remaining one step ahead of their pasts.

But abusers may also come from the top ranks of their profession, with reputations for dedication to their students built up over long and distinguished careers. Often, their work brings them in close contact with students outside the regular classroom: in sports, music, drama, and other activities.

At the same time, the students who are targeted by such employees may be the least inclined to report the offenses and the least likely to be believed if they do. They may prove uncooperative or unreliable witnesses, and some wait many years before coming forward.

Combined with those challenges is a natural reluctance among teachers and school employees to believe that their colleagues are capable of such behavior.

“I think staff are still turning their heads away,” said Donna Covello, the president of a national victims’ network called Survivors of Educator Sexual Abuse and Misconduct Emerge, or SESAME. “It’s easy for them to just walk away.”

That inclination may be especially strong among teachers, for whom the specter of being falsely accused of abusing a student is a nagging fear.

Such anxieties were heightened by several highly publicized trials in the 1980s involving alleged abuse at day-care centers. The possibility that children had made up stories or had been coaxed by investigators into confirming dubious allegations became central issues in some of those cases.

Doubting that employee-student sex could ever happen in their schools or communities, some administrators are caught off guard when the problem strikes.

“In the back of your mind, you know that anything is possible, but you don’t expect it to occur,” said Wayne Haugen, the superintendent of the Hastings, Minn., schools, where a female teacher pleaded guilty in July after a four-month sexual relationship with a teenage student. “It’s something that always happens in some other part of the country or in some other school district.”

Missteps by unprepared or ill-trained officials at the school or district level can impede justice, invite years of litigation, spark a community uproar, and prevent victims from receiving the counseling and support they need.

For all these reasons, school staff members, parents, and students may overlook signs of misconduct that should cause them to sound the alarm. This makes it more likely that school employees who cross the line into sex with a student will escape accountability for their actions.

Support for the Teachers

One reason such cases can prove so divisive is that they often involve teachers who are among the most popular and dedicated in the school.

That’s what happened last spring at New Trier High School in Winnetka, Ill ., one of the most prestigious public schools in the country. Students wore black armbands to protest the suspension of a social studies teacher, who had once been voted “most liked male teacher,” after he was charged with fondling a 16-year-old girl. Some said they found the criminal charges, which are pending, nearly impossible to believe in light of his fine teaching.

In the small New Hampshire town of Raymond, many colleagues and community members were incredulous when a veteran middle school teacher was arrested in 1997 for having sex with a student starting when she was 14. He turned out to be only the first of two longtime teachers at the school--the other was a woman--to be convicted in the past year of sexually abusing students.

“There was a lot of denial in the beginning,” said Raymond parent Gloria Brown, 40, who attended both trials. “And there are still people who don’t believe it.”

In Santa Fe, N.M., supporters of a 28-year-old teacher continued to maintain his innocence even after he pleaded no contest last May to having sex with a 16-year-old student while his own children slept in an adjacent room.

And in Cincinnati, students at a Roman Catholic high school last spring signed petitions and wrote letters supporting a 26-year-old teacher who pleaded guilty in July to having sex with a student when she was 15. In a letter published in The Cincinnati Enquirer, one student called him “the best teacher I ever had.” A judge spared the convicted teacher a prison term after the victim said she feared her peers would take it out on her if he were jailed.

Students Often Blamed

In such instances, it is common for victims to be labeled liars by their classmates--and sometimes by their teachers, counselors, and principals.

That scenario unfolded in Tucson last year after a popular social studies teacher and coach was charged with abusing a 17-year-old boy at a state leadership conference. At the 44-year-old teacher’s sentencing in April, the boy said he had lost all of his friends and had been branded a liar after the teacher steadfastly denied the allegations.

Equally common is a tendency to blame the student for any sexual contact-- and for bringing down an admired educator.

That’s what Emily Slee of Chester County, Pa., says happened to her after a popular basketball coach and former district “teacher of the year” molested her during her senior year of high school. Ms. Slee, now 21, said some of her favorite former teachers quickly turned against her, and have never apologized for doing so.

“They made me feel like I should be the person behind bars,” she said.

Victims and their advocates say the damage from such treatment is severe, and can remain with students well into their adult lives. “They become outcasts within the schools,” Mr. Conway, the New York lawyer, said. “It is a different type of abuse, but it is equally devastating to them.”

In such cases, school officials as well as victims may come under fire from parents demanding not that the accused educator be fired, but that he or she be returned to the classroom.

In Yonkers, N.Y., for example, many parents were skeptical when a veteran 4th grade teacher at a school for gifted students was charged with fondling three boys in his class. Last week, the teacher was convicted of abusing the boys from 1995 through the end of last year.

After his arrest a year ago this month, some parents demanded that the suspended teacher, who had pleaded not guilty, be reinstated while the criminal case proceeded.

“They said things like: ‘I don’t give a damn what these kids say. Put him back in the classroom. I’ll give you a release,’ ” recalled Lawrence W. Thomas, the school district’s lawyer. “He had parents who are practically willing to die for him.”

Extracurricular Access

Abusive educators do not always enjoy great popularity or stellar reputations, but those assets may tip the scales against aggressively investigating or pursuing charges, especially in cases that boil down to a child’s word against that of a respected adult.

“The characteristics that make you a good teacher are the same characteristics that make you successful in getting close to kids to abuse them,” said Douglas F. Bates, the director of school law, legislation, certification, and equity for the Utah State Office of Education. “In every child-abuse case that I’m aware of, they’ll have witnesses coming in and saying, ‘This is a good teacher.’ ”

Besides affording them popularity with students, extracurricular duties often earn teachers the gratitude and respect of administrators and parents. Unfortunately, those activities also allow abusers additional access to their targets.

In the cases involving allegations of abuse examined by Education Week, at least a third involved leaders of such activities. Most of those were coaches of athletic teams, but others were involved in areas such as music or drama.

“If you’re a good coach or drama director, you have those kids for several hours in an unstructured setting,” Mr. Bates pointed out. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to get close to them in a positive sense or a destructive sense.”

Such activities also provide places where educators can act on their sexual interest in students. Locker rooms, activity offices, rehearsal rooms, and road trips can all provide settings for illicit contact.

“I don’t believe that coaches and band directors are less moral than the teaching force as a whole,” said W. Richard Fossey, the associate dean of the college of education at Louisiana State University. “But there’s opportunity.”

Much Abuse Unreported

As explosive as cases of schoolhouse sexual misconduct are when made public, many never see the light of day. Just as school employees, parents, and victims can all be instrumental in bringing abusers to justice, they can also--intentionally or not--prevent that from happening.

Abusers often use powerful incentives to keep their victims silent, ranging from vows of love to threats of violence. Consequently, victims will often protect them out of affection, loyalty, fear, or shame.

Colleagues, too, are often reluctant to come forward when they suspect something is amiss.

Such reluctance can be seen even when the evidence is strong--despite state laws requiring educators to report suspected child abuse.

“The teacher culture is one that makes it pretty hard for teachers who might have suspicions to do anything about it,” said Charol Shakeshaft, an expert on sexual abuse of students who teaches at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. “If you do, you’re considered a troublemaker.”

When students do disclose what happened, they often try to swear their confidants to secrecy.

And parents, motivated by a desire to shield their children from publicity and emotional distress, may urge authorities not to press charges.

Sometimes, it is school officials who strive to keep a lid on cases, hoping to avoid further trauma for victims or legal liability and damaging publicity for their schools.

Allegations of such inaction are often a central issue in lawsuits against school systems brought by victims, some of which have yielded multimillion- dollar settlements or jury awards. Inaction has also occasionally led to criminal charges against principals and other school officials for failing to report suspected abuse.

Any of these scenarios may permit abusive employees to stay on the job or quietly move to another, usually unsuspecting, school or district.

“There is this realm of cases that are never reported,” said Nan D. Stein, the director of a project on sexual harassment in the schools at the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. “So journalists and researchers are deprived of the lessons that could be learned.”

Signs of Progress?

Many experts believe the federal government, states, districts, and individual schools are a long way from doing all they should to limit sexual abuse of students.

Yet representatives of school districts and administrators see signs of progress. “We have 15,000 school districts, so, of course, the compliance does vary,” said Julie Underwood, the general counsel to the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. “But in the main, districts are attuned to this issue. There’s been an upsurge in policymaking in this area.”

Stephen Yurek, the general counsel for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, said that his Reston, Va.-based organization has stepped up efforts to educate members about the issue in the past year, and that they are responding with interest.

“They see this as very serious,” he said. “There’s more of an awareness that it’s an issue that needs to be addressed.”

Others caution that the threat of sex abuse in the schools needs to be kept in perspective. The last thing students, parents, or teachers need, they say, is for all educators to fall under a cloud of suspicion.

But finding the proper balance has proved elusive, Mr. Shoop of Kansas State University contends. “Paranoia has been created in response to the hysteria around these behaviors, but there’s also a reluctance to see the signs of abuse,” he said.

The best way to overcome that reluctance, many advocates say, is zero tolerance throughout the education community.

“Without this clear declaration by the school systems, there is confusion in the minds of the entire school community and society in general,” said Mary Ann Werner, the founder of the victims’ network SESAME. “The educational institutions must state in no uncertain terms that any and all sexual interaction between any staff member and a student of any age is wrong.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 1998 edition of Education Week as Sex With Students: When Employees Cross the Line


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