School Climate & Safety

Sexual Abuse by Educators Is Scrutinized

By Caroline Hendrie — March 10, 2004 8 min read
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A draft report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education concludes that far too little is known about the prevalence of sexual misconduct by teachers or other school employees, but estimates that millions of children are being affected by it during their school-age years.

Written in response to a requirement in the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the report by a university-based expert on schoolhouse sexual misconduct concludes that the issue “is woefully understudied” and that solid national data on its prevalence are sorely needed.

Yet despite the limitations of the existing research base, the scope of the problem appears to far exceed the priest abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, said Charol Shakeshaft, the Hofstra University scholar who prepared the report.

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View the accompanying table, “Preventing Sexual Misconduct.”

The best data available suggest that nearly 10 percent of American students are targets of unwanted sexual attention by public school employees—ranging from sexual comments to rape—at some point during their school-age years, Ms. Shakeshaft said.

“So we think the Catholic Church has a problem?” she said.

To support her contention that many more youngsters have been sexually mistreated by school employees than by priests, Ms. Shakeshaft pointed to research conducted for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and released late last month. That study found that from 1950 to 2002, 10,667 people made allegations that priests or deacons had sexually abused them as minors. (“Report Tallies Alleged Sexual Abuse by Priests,” this issue.)

Extrapolating from data collected in a national survey for the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation in 2000, Ms. Shakeshaft estimated that roughly 290,000 students experienced some sort of physical sexual abuse by a public school employee from 1991 to 2000—a single decade, compared with the roughly five-decade period examined in the study of Catholic priests.

Those figures suggest that “the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests,"contended Ms. Shakeshaft, who is a professor of educational administration at Hofstra, in Hempstead, N.Y.

Kathleen Lyons, a spokeswoman for the National Education Association, called it “a misuse of the data to imply that public schools and the Catholic Church have experienced the same level of abuse cases.”

“I take great umbrage at that suggestion,” she said in an interview. “That just seems like someone is reaching conclusions based on half the data that’s needed.”

Ms. Shakeshaft acknowledged that the accuracy of such comparisons might be thrown off by any number of factors, including undercounting of youngsters abused by priests. But that uncertainty only underscores the need for better research on the prevalence of sexual misconduct in the schools, she argued.

“Educator sexual misconduct is woefully understudied,” Ms. Shakeshaft says in the draft of her report, titled “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature.”

“We have scant data on incidence and even less on descriptions of predators and targets,” she writes. “There are many questions that call for answers.”

Law Required Study

The Education Department contracted with Ms. Shakeshaft to examine what is known about the prevalence of sexual misconduct against students by school employees. The agency was responding to a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act.

The little-noticed provision required a “study regarding the prevalence of sexual abuse in schools, including recommendations and legislative remedies for addressing the problem of sexual abuse in schools.” The provision went on to set a completion date of “not later than 18 months” after the enactment of the law, which was signed by President Bush in January 2002.

Ms. Shakeshaft said her initial understanding from the department was that she was to conduct a review of the existing research to set the stage for a broad national study. She said the department had interpreted the statute’s reference to “sexual abuse in schools” as meaning misconduct by school employees against students, and not by students against their peers.

She said that after she turned in a draft of the report last May, she received feedback from the department that led her to believe that the literature review was no longer intended to lay the groundwork for a future study. In a letter stating that the Education Department “has not made plans to conduct further work on a national study on sexual abuse in schools,” Ms. Shakeshaft was asked to change the original subtitle of her report, which was “A Synthesis of Existing Literature in Connection With the Design of a National Analysis.”

Ms. Shakeshaft then retooled and expanded the report to include more information about what is known about the issue, and submitted another draft to the department last week.

Carlin Mertz, an Education Department spokesman, said last week that officials did not want to make substantive comments about the report until it had been reviewed by the agency and made final. But he indicated that the department did not intend a full-blown study of the issue at the present time.

“That’s all we’re going to do right now,” said Mr. Mertz. “Right now, this is it.”

If no additional study is commissioned, Ms. Shakeshaft will be disappointed, she said.

“A review of what we know about educator sexual misconduct tells us that in order to prevent incidents, we really need to know more about it,” she said.

Leadership at the federal level is needed, she argued, because of the decentralization of the U.S. education system.

“There’s no one school district for the whole country,” she said. “The only place we can go really to do a national study is the federal government.”

Gregory Lawler, a lawyer for the Colorado Education Association who co-wrote a book published last year titled Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Teachers and Accusations of Abuse, said last week that he agreed that better data were needed at a national level.

“NEA, or somebody, ought to be keeping records of both sex- and child-abuse allegations and where they go,” Mr. Lawler said. “There should be a database somewhere, because I think it would help put things in context.”

Data Flawed

In her report, Ms. Shakeshaft identifies nearly 900 citations in research-based sources—described as “all sources that were screened for an empirical or systematic analytic foundation"—"that discussed educator sexual misconduct in some format.”

But of those, she found just 14 empirical studies on the subject from the United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom. Two of those were conducted by Education Week and were chronicled in separate series of articles published in 1998 and 2003. (“A Trust Betrayed: Sexual Abuse by Teachers” November 1998, and “A Trust Betrayed: Update on Sexual Misconduct in Schools,” April 2003.)

“None of these studies—either singly or as a group—answer all of the reasonable questions that parents, students, educators, and the public ask about educator sexual misconduct,” Ms. Shakeshaft says in the draft report. “And they certainly do not provide information at a level of reliability and validity appropriate to the gravity of these offenses.”

Of the data available, Ms. Shakeshaft views a 2001 study by the AAUW as offering the best window into how many schoolchildren are targets of sexual misconduct by educators.

Based on a 2000 survey of 2,064 public school students in grades 8-11, “Hostile Hallways II: Bullying, Teasing, and Sexual Harassment in School” was a follow-up to a similar study the Washington-based AAUW conducted in 1993.

While the AAUW studies did not focus on misconduct by school employees, both of the surveys featured questions about sexual harassment that Ms. Shakeshaft was able to reanalyze for information on the prevalence of such behavior.

The reanalysis found that 9.6 percent of all students in grades 8-11 reported sexual harassment by teachers, coaches, or other school employees. That included misconduct involving physical contact as well as such behavior as sexual remarks, jokes, or gestures, with 8.7 percent of respondents reporting “noncontact” harassment and 6.7 percent reporting harassment involving physical contact.

Further Study

While Ms. Shakeshaft considers the AAUW data the best available for estimating the prevalence of the problem, the information has many limitations, she notes in her report. Among them are that the survey asked students to “report on their entire school career, making it difficult to determine prevalence by year or grade” and increasing the likelihood that students might have forgotten about incidents in earlier years.

“Analysis was broad-brushed and cursory,” Ms. Shakeshaft adds in the draft report, and “questions on educator sexual misconduct are limited.” Moreover, inappropriate behavior by educators was likely underreported, she suggests, because the survey “only asked about incidents that were unwanted, excluding reports of misconduct that were either welcome or that did not fall into either a welcome or unwelcome category.”

Still, she says in the report that the data can be used to “get a sense of the extent of the number of students who have been targets of educator sexual misconduct.”

“Based on the assumption that the AAUW surveys accurately represent the experiences of all K-12 students, more than 4.5 million students are sexually harassed or abused by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade,” the report says. “This is about the same number of people who live in all of Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.”

To help fill the holes in the knowledge base on schoolhouse sexual misconduct, Ms. Shakeshaft recommends further research on topics including prevalence and patterns of abuse, effects on targets and other students, consequences for offenders, and responses by schools, districts, professional organizations, and the public.

She also calls for study of effective investigative practices, the legal landscape, and state laws and policies. The frequency of false accusations is another area she cites as being worthy of examination.

But as strongly as she feels that more research is needed, Ms. Shakeshaft said the education community shouldn’t sit on its hands.

“Some individual districts might have changed some policies or had an in-service workshop, but really there hasn’t been any systematic response to this issue,” she said. “It isn’t as if we need to stop and wait for a study. I do believe we know enough to take some actions.”

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