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Sexual Misconduct by Educators: What We Need to Do to Protect Students

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At a graduation ceremony, a male teacher announces that he only wants to pin carnations on the girls, and he hovers over a student's chest as he fastens the flower. Other staff members look on awkwardly, but don't intervene.

A student tells her mother that her favorite math teacher asked her to stay after school for extra help, and then he closed the classroom door and kissed her.

Irate parents crowd into a school auditorium after learning on the evening news that a teacher allegedly sexually abused a third grader. One mother confronts school officials: "You stuff my daughter's backpack with notices every day, and I have to find this out on the news! How do I explain this to my daughter?"

These types of sexual misconduct by educators happen far more than we'd like to think. The best data available shows that 10 percent of children are targets of educator sexual misconduct at some time during their K-12 school career. Students may experience a range of behaviors including inappropriate sexual comments, sexual notes or pictures, unacceptable touching of clothing, or forced physical contact such as kissing or intercourse. Unfortunately, most educator sexual misconduct is not reported, and even when it is, the majority of these cases do not result in the teacher being disciplined. Even though we do not have precise data on how many teachers and other educators abuse students, the recent Sandusky case at Penn State and the New York Times exposé of the Horace Mann School show that it is urgent for schools to take deliberate, comprehensive steps to safeguard students. They need to act now, before another student is victimized.

As a psychiatrist who has advised schools for 20 years, I can tell you from experience that it is extremely disturbing when a teacher violates professional expectations of conduct. Cases like the ones mentioned above haunt me to this day, and I believe strongly that the media recent attention to this issue should become a teachable moment. I recently spoke to Professor Charol Shakeshaft at Virginia Commonwealth University, a researcher on educator sexual misconduct, and she outlined steps that seem obvious in hindsight but would have helped me in past situations. Here are several key steps schools can and should take to protect students.

Hiring Process: The first precaution a school can take is to make sure they don't hire someone when there are suspicions of abuse. Administrators should never make assumptions and should always do a thorough background check. Although teachers may sometimes relocate for family reasons, it is unusual for a teacher with tenure to change jobs. School officials should check all references provided by the candidate, but they should also dig deeper and contact other people, including the principal of the former school. In one disturbing case Professor Shakeshaft discussed, a school district had a teacher who was having sex with a high school female and the school cut a deal that they would give him a recommendation for another job if he resigned. He resigned, they recommended him to another district where he began sexual relations with two high school music students. One of those students killed herself.

Shakeshaft says that former employers may not readily offer disturbing concerns if they have been unable to substantiate them. However, she outlines pointed questions that may reveal potential problems.

  • Were there any allegations of improper behavior?
  • Were there ever reports of drug or alcohol abuse?
  • Was there any disciplinary action for sexual abuse or any other kind of abuse?
  • Was there any inappropriate behavior toward students, including flirting?

If there is conduct that seems worrisome, it needs to be further researched. Most abusers who are presented with troubling information will act offended or provide a very good response about how this isn't true. It requires a thorough background investigation to make sure that the person is not a risk to students.

Warning signs: Sometimes school administrators may acknowledge that a teacher may be "weird" or immature. They may notice that a teacher makes off-putting sexual jokes or flirts, like the teacher putting flowers on the students' robes. They can often dismiss or ignore this troubling behavior and not recognize that it can be a warning sign of a predatory pattern. Most school districts are quick to claim they have appropriate policies to prepare teachers to act when a child is at risk for harm and for reporting abuse, but these policies often fall short. There needs to be a specific outline about acceptable/unacceptable teacher behavior and clear consequences for staff. Boundary violations need to be carefully defined. These violations include taking a student out to lunch without alerting other school adults, spending excessive time alone with students before or after school, and making inappropriate comments that are sexual in nature.

Typical profile of a predator and what schools need to watch for: The typical predator first identifies a student who may show interest and then groom him or her with increased attention. The teacher is often a charismatic hero (frequently a male) who may have received awards. The teacher can persuade parents to allow the student to spend extra time outside of the regular school day with the promise that he can nurture the child's talent. The student can be pleased to have the encouragement and attention, but then becomes confused and ashamed when the teacher makes sexual advances. Although parents and administrators may worry that it is difficult to differentiate between good intentions and abuse, Shakeshaft contends that professional teachers are more transparent and do not act in secrecy, closing the classroom door and seeing the student alone. It is important to stay alert and pay attention to how the child and the adult interact.

How to communicate if the unthinkable happens: Schools need to take steps to communicate with staff and parents when a teacher is suspected of inappropriate conduct. Shakeshaft says that sometimes schools stonewall parents because they are concerned that a teacher may sue them for libel. In other cases, parents sue school districts because they are frustrated and angry about a lack of information. The key to building trust is to reveal that school administrators have investigated the teacher's alleged misconduct and referred the case to appropriate authorities. It is also important to provide a time line.

Schools need to provide a safe haven for students -- not an opportunity for predatory behavior. School administrators cannot afford to look at the Sandusky case or the Horace Mann story as extreme aberrations, but must rather see them as a rallying cry to put practical steps in place to ensure that children remain safe.