Teachers’ sexual assault and harassment of students often pops up in isolated headlines, but it’s a troubling issue that’s difficult to measure. There’s no federal data on the subject— which encompasses a spectrum of behaviors ranging from inappropriate text messages to rape— and abusive teacher-student aren’t always reported to law enforcement.
Is that about to change? Politics K-12 asked a leading researcher on educator sexual misconduct for her feedback on proposed new federal data collection on the subject. Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, said she’s skeptical that the new data points will paint a clearer picture of a problem she’s studied for decades.
“If you don’t study this misconduct, you don’t really understand how insidious it really is,” Shakeshaft said. “But the way the [proposed] questions are phrased now, I think they will lead to a partial picture.”
First, some background.
Last week, the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights posted plans to ask schools around the country new questions for its biennial data collection, the most comprehensive information researchers and practitioners have about what’s happening in U.S. schools. Among the proposed data points are six that relate to sexual assault. Several of those questions ask about cases of sexual assault by school staff members. Most prominently, schools will be asked to report “the number of documented incidents of rape or attempted rape that occurred at the school committed by a school staff member.” (The questions do not specify that the victim of those assaults must be a student.) Other questions ask about rape allegations where educator or staff members were found responsible, where they were found not responsible, or where a staff member was re-assigned prior to a final resolution of the complaint.
Educator sexual misconduct is sometimes brushed aside or not documented at all.
Shakeshaft’s research goes beyond the nature of sex and assault between teachers and students and also explores the ways school systems respond to those inappropriate relationships. Among the biggest concerns: Schools don’t always fully explore allegations of teacher sexual assault, or they code them as problematic consensual relationships, rather than rape. Some also dismiss employees without documenting their concerns, only to leave them to be hired by other districts with no record of their behavior. It’s a pattern called “passing the trash.”
A 2014 report by the Government Accountability Office found that inconsistencies in state laws and district policies have led some cases of teacher sexual misconduct with students to be handled by schools alone without a required report to law enforcement.
“The prevalence of sexual abuse by school personnel remains unknown, in part, because some cases go unreported,” that report said. “Further, the term sexual abuse may not capture the full spectrum of the issue. While child sexual abuse typically refers to the criminal act of forcing a child to engage in sexual activity with the perpetrator, other inappropriate behaviors with children may eventually lead to sexual abuse. For example, while not generally criminal, behaviors often referred to as ‘grooming’ may be carried out by the perpetrator with the aim of establishing trust to facilitate future sexual activity with the child.”
Since the publication of that report, some policymakers have tightened policies on how schools respond to and record allegations of sexual misconduct by educators and school staff.
Educator misconduct is difficult to measure.
Shakeshaft thinks the proposed new federal survey questions are insufficient because they ask about “rape and attempted rape,” but not the broader range of misconduct covered by Title IX, the federal sex discrimination law that addresses sexual misconduct in schools.
As the GAO noted, inappropriate sexual relationships often start with “grooming” behaviors that wouldn’t be documented by the new data. Increasingly, that grooming starts online and in text messages, Shakeshaft said.
In addition, a student may mistakenly view sex with an adult as consensual, even if it is legally considered rape.
“They are afraid they will get in trouble, or they’ve already seen how [other reports of sexual assualt] have been dealt with so they think it won’t do any good to report,” Shakeshaft said. “Another is that they are in love with the teacher or the adult and they don’t want to get them in trouble. And their friends don’t report because the friend thinks that if you’re 14 years old and having sex with your teacher, and no one says there’s anything wrong with it, then it’s OK. They code it as dating.”
Administrators may also incorrectly categorize such an abusive relationship, particularly when the perpetrator is a female staff member, she said. And, in some cases, administrators may accept denials on the part of the student and the adult and not press the investigation any further, Shakeshaft said.
“They both say, ‘Of course not,’ and that’s the end of it,” she said.
And with all forms of student victimization data, researchers have cautioned that some students, such as those from white, affluent families, are more likely to report concerns than their peers, who may be less likely to trust that administrators will support them.
Why not ask the students directly?
So while the new questions may provide additional data, Shakeshaft questions if the new statistics will be complete or illuminating.
She suggests cutting out the middle man and asking students directly about sexual misconduct by adults in their schools. For example, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asks students about sexual issues, risk-taking behaviors, and drug use. Researchers may be able to tailor a question that asks students about educator sexual misconduct, overcoming some of the barriers of reporting that could skew data filtered through adults, Shakeshaft said.
Also worth noting: School administrators regularly complain about the volume of data they must collect and report, and every new question creates concerns about what data should be included. And surveys of youth are politically sensitive. Some parents have protested questions about children’s sexual orientation, for example. So it may be more complicated than it sounds.
The department’s proposed questions, which also touch on issues like discipline and early education, will be out for public comment until Nov. 18.