A doctoral student at Hofstra University in New York is conducting an anonymous survey of students with disabilities who have been sexually abused in a school setting. Parents and caregivers can also respond on behalf of the victim.
I spoke to doctoral candidate Mary Lou Bensy, who is a former director of special education in Malverne, N.Y. In 2007, she was awarded $100,000 by a federal jury for emotional distress after accusing a former acting superintendent of the district for sexual harassment. She “barely survived” emotionally after the experience, she said. But the situation also prompted her to wonder how students with multiple disabilites, whom she had taught for most of her career, might be emotionally affected by sexual abuse or harassment.
“These are students who are dependent on people who provide very personal support services,” she said. But there’s been little research done in the area, she found, as she started her doctoral studies.
In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report(pdf) about crimes against people with disabilities in general. The report did not focus specifically on students, sex crimes, or crimes occurring in a school setting.
However, the Justice Department did note that 12- to 19-year-olds with disabilities experienced violence at nearly twice the rate of youths the same age without disabilities. People with cognitive disabilities had a higher rate of victimization than people of any other disability category. And more than half the violent crimes against people with disabilities were against those with multiple disabilities.
Those sobering statistics spurred Bensy on, she said. Right now, she has about 105 respondents, and is looking for at least 350 in order to draw some conclusions. The survey will not be able to speak to how often sexual abuse occurs, because the only people fillng out the survey will presumably have been victims of abuse, or their family members. The survey is not a random sample.
The study could help lead, though, to some conclusions about where such abuse occurs, who the perpetrators are, and how often male students are victimized compared with female students.
“This is a first effort to gather some data,” Bensy said. “I am passionate about this. I cannot wait to see what we get, and we had to start somewhere.”
The survey link is available here.
A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.