An estimated 4 to 5 million U.S. public school students may be at risk or become victims of sexual assault by school employees and teachers. Even so, media outlets and public officials remain tight-lipped, cover-up allegations, and fight disclosure.
Since 2007, over 2,000 separate sexual abuse cases have been filed against U. S. public school employees. This takes into account the relatively small number of cases dismissed outright, dismissed under plea agreement or changed to other charges upon conviction, but does not include the many others that get swept under the rug, covered-up, or never reported at all, according to records kept by the website BadBadTeacher.com.
A 2007 Associated Press investigation, covering the period from 2001 to 2005 and reported in USA Today, found that of all reported educator misconduct cases, only about a quarter, or 2,570, educators were punished for sexual misconduct nationwide. There were 2,625 cases that resulted in license suspension, revocation, denial, surrender or “other punishments,” according to the report.
While these numbers may seem large, the extent of public school sexual abuse may be much greater, as revealed by a study ordered as part of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” program.
According to the report, “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature,” authored by Hofstra University Professor Charol Shakeshaft, from 6 to 10 percent of K through 11 public school students will be victims of sexual abuse or harassment before graduation. Under current enrollments, this would represent a total of 4 to 5 million sexually abused U. S. Public School students.
Lack of a clearinghouse
Despite the thousands of public school systems across the country, there is a lack of comprehensive resources for identifying educators who have abused students.
There is no federal clearinghouse for statistics on allegations of educator sexual abuse. Such information is frequently informally collected on an ad hoc state-by-state, or even district-level basis. Many districts and the teachers’ unions are reluctant, at best, to make such information freely accessible. Since these are state-level cases (although some repeat educator-predators do cross state lines), there are no F.B.I. files, reports or statistics specifically addressing teacher predation. Nor are such reports centrally collected elsewhere.
When Professor Shakeshaft reviewed the then-current literature for her report, she could find only one source of nationwide studies:
“The AAUW Hostile Hallways surveys, administered to a nationwide sample of 8th- to 11th-grade students in 1993 and again in 2000, are the only studies that provide reliable nationwide U.S. data on educator misconduct. The purpose of these two studies was not specifically to document educator sexual misconduct. Peer sexual harassment is the primary focus of the surveys and the reports. However, the data from these studies were subjected to a secondary reanalysis which focused only on educator sexual misconduct.”
The internet source, BadBadTeacher.com, has attempted to document allegations, charges and dismissals, despite the lack of a formal national clearinghouse. The cases documented and followed by the “BadBadTeacher” site since 2007 are gleaned from individual reports, news items and court records. The site currently reports on over 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse at the hands of public school employees, the majority of them educators, although bus drivers, coaches and janitors figure into the count as well.
Lack of media and official discussion
A comparison of the attention given US public school cases to allegations involving Catholic priests reveals almost no equivalent official or media coverage, and a lack of public statements regarding the extent of the threat facing U. S. public school students.
According to a report in The Tidings, the newspaper for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, when Shakeshaft looked into the problem, the first thing that came to her mind were the daily headlines about the Catholic Church.
“[T]hink the Catholic Church has a problem?” she said. “The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.”
So, in order to better protect children, did media outlets start hounding the worse menace of the school systems, with headlines about a “Nationwide Teacher Molestation Cover-up” and by asking “Are Ed Schools Producing Pedophiles?”
No, they didn’t. That treatment was reserved for the Catholic Church, while the greater problem in the schools was ignored altogether.
Aside from the foregoing USA Today report, and anecdotal local news publications, media coverage of the problem is virtually non-existent. Many, such as those of the Dallas Morning News and Seattle Times, are frustrated by official and union recalcitrance. In Indiana, the Indianapolis Star was forced to sue in U.S. District court to gain access to these records. The districts and teachers’ organizations had to be ordered to comply with a request for disclosure.
Lack of disclosure
Among the greatest obstacles are the teachers’ unions, which in many cases prevent disclosure of information that they and district administrators would rather not have reported.
Shakeshaft notes in her report that “two recent series, one in the Dallas Morning News (Jennings and Tharp, May 2003) and the other in the Seattle Times (Willmsen and O’Hagan, December 2003), examined educator sexual misconduct in their respective states. Jennings and Tharp focused on 606 cases of educator sexual misconduct from Texas State Board of Educator Certification records and Willmsen and O’Hagan targeted abuse by coaches. In both instances, reporters commented on the difficulty of obtaining information on educator sexual misconduct. O’Hagan and Willmsen (Dec. 14, 2003) write:
When the Seattle Times asked the Bellevue School District for information about teachers and coaches accused of sexual misconduct, school officials and the state’s most powerful union teamed up behind the scenes to try to hide the files. Bellevue school officials even let teachers purge their own records at union-organized “file parties” to prevent disclosure.”
The Indianapolis Star reports that during the recently-closed legislative session, state education officials and lawmakers proposed changes to state law that would prevent school districts from keeping records secret when they think teachers have committed misconduct. Senate Bill 242 was inspired by reports of secret resignation agreements made between an Indianapolis-area school and teachers. News information stated that the school district made agreements allowing four teachers it thought had harassed or abused students to resign in exchange for money, secrecy or neutral job references. The Indiana Department of Education has already adopted a much more aggressive stance on pursuing cases of educator misconduct, but is hamstrung by loopholes in the law that must be fixed. SB 242 died in the session.
In 2009 the Star prevailed in federal court when Lawrence Schools refused to release agreements it signed in four sexual abuse cases in which the district allowed the teachers to resign, guaranteed secrecy, and also paid them. In two of these cases, school officials promised they would not give any details about the resignations to future employers.
Last July, the judge ordered that the agreements from 1994 through 2003 be released. Under the current state of Indiana law, nothing prevents this from happening in any other districts or schools.