Everyone involved in education has a responsibility to help end the sexual assault of students by the adults who are supposed to protect them.
Since the beginning of this year — and it is just August as I write this — at least one (and in most cases more than one) teacher in every state has been arrested for the sexual abuse of a student or students. Add in other school employees — bus drivers, custodians, administrators, coaches — and the numbers are even higher. All kinds of students have been victims: preK students, elementary students, middle school students, high school students, students with disabilities, Black, Brown, White, and Asian-American students, gifted students, AP students, student athletes . . .
It’s shocking but not surprising. Educator sexual misconduct is nothing new. It has been widely reported in the general media and education outlets for nearly three decades. Still, though, the details remain somewhat nebulous. Unfortunately, little has been done to collect precise, up-to-date national data on the prevalence of educator sexual misconduct. The last national study that included this information was completed in 2004 and reported that nearly 10% of students — 4.5 million — are victims of employee sexual misconduct (Shakeshaft, 2004). Since that time, there has been no national study on the prevalence of employee-to-student sexual misconduct.
To monitor and prevent such abuse, it will be critically important to gather more and better data. But even more important than learning the details of who, where, and how many is to pursue the why questions: Why is this still happening? If we’ve been aware of this horror for so long, then why haven’t we done more to stop it? Why are students still being victimized by those who are paid to protect them?
One reason may be that preventing abuse isn’t anyone’s job per se — it’s a responsibility shared by all of us who are involved with the schools: teachers, coaches, and school staff; administrators; university professors who prepare educators; school board members who make and oversee local policy; state legislators who make laws governing education; state education agencies that enforce these laws; members of Congress who pass federal laws, the secretary of education and the Department of Education employees who monitor and (sometimes) enforce these laws. With so many of us having to be on the same page, there’s always a good chance that some of us won’t be. Within every school, district, and state, there are likely to be people who just don’t get it.
“It doesn’t seem like a big problem,” they’ll say.
“I didn’t know.”
“It doesn’t happen here.”
“What can you do?”
“I don’t know what to do.”
“There’s no time.”
“It’s not my job.”
“I don’t want to harm a colleague’s reputation.”
“It’s disgusting, I don’t even want to think about it.”
And then there are the “explanations” that blame the victim: “The way she dressed, what could he do?” Most of these responses are really just excuses for not living up to our moral and professional responsibility to make students safe from predators. Instead, we privilege the comfort of adults, ourselves included, over the safety of children.
Fortunately, there is solid empirical research and practical guidance on effective prevention. In 1979, education reformer Ron Edmonds said about school improvement for the neediest children, “We already know more than we need to [improve schooling]. Whether or not we do it must finally depend on how we feel about the fact that we haven’t so far.” The same is true for the prevention of sexual abuse in schools. We have the knowledge and tools; we simply need to marshal the will to act and the strategic sense to do so on multiple levels, in a carefully coordinated fashion.
The federal level
In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) included new requirements related to personnel management and the prevention of abuse. Specifically, states, state agencies, and local school districts must now enact laws, regulations, or policies intended to prevent what has become known as “passing the trash.”
Historically, districts have “solved” the problem of predatory employees by allowing — and even recommending — that they be employed somewhere else. Far too often, local leaders have decided that they would rather send an abuser to another district than to ruin that person’s career, fight them in a costly legal battle, or risk the reputation (i.e., property values) of their district or their own career.
Under the new regulations, if an individual or agency knows or has probable cause to believe that sexual misconduct between an employee and a student or child has occurred, that agency can no longer assist the employee in finding a new job. The regulations forbid confidential agreements between the suspected employee and the school district or agency, such as when an employee resigns on the condition that district leaders keep quiet about their suspicions or knowledge of child sexual abuse.
But while this is a positive step that has been endorsed by a wide range of advocacy organizations, there remains much more work for federal policy makers to do.
Historically, districts have “solved” the problem of predatory employees by allowing — and even recommending — that they be employed somewhere else.
One priority is to mandate comprehensive background checks on preK-12 school employees, contractors, volunteers, and third-party agents. Although some states require checks for (at least some) school employees, there is no federal mandate to do so. Thus, abusers often move from school to school and state to state, knowing that their record is not likely to follow them and that they will stand a good chance of being hired in another system. This is especially true of nonprofessional positions, where licensure or certification is not required.
We also need a national school sexual offender database with state-by-state data collection and publicly accessible reporting. On a smaller scale, such comprehensive registries have been used effectively by school districts and other youth organizations to weed out abusers during the hiring process. Notably, the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) has provided a substantial service in this area by supporting a clearinghouse of information on “individuals who have had their professional educator certificates/license annulled, denied, suspended, revoked, or otherwise invalidated.” Further, NASDTEC has recently made this database accessible to public and private schools and districts that are NASDTEC members. Although this is a helpful start, the database is likely incomplete because most abuse isn’t reported to districts at all, and not all states require districts to report abusers to the state and then on to NASDTEC.
If we’ve been aware of this horror for so long, then why haven’t we done more to stop it? Why are students still being victimized by those who are paid to protect them?
Another priority is to criminalize school employee sexual misconduct no matter the age of the victim. Currently, all states have an age of consent law, but not all states prohibit sex between a school employee and a student who is at or above the age of consent. Because school employees have special access to students and hold power over them, however, it is impracticable to expect students of any age to provide their true consent. This should be stated clearly in federal law.
As for the U.S. Department of Education, there are several steps the department could take to assist states and districts in preventing sexual abuse in schools:
- Include the prevention of sexual abuse of students by employees in the mission of the Department’s School Safety Commission;
- Task the Office of Civil Rights to undertake a broad investigation of employee sexual misconduct in school districts and to enforce the training requirements contained in ESSA and under Title IX;
- Fund the development of ESSA requirements for effective prevention training for school employees, students, and parents; and
- Fund a periodic study of prevalence of educator sexual misconduct in U.S. schools.
The state level
At the state level, improvements are needed in training school personnel to prevent, recognize, and respond to abuse by school employees. Since the 1960s, school personnel have been identified as mandated reporters who are required to report all known or suspected cases of child abuse, and since then, most states and districts have provided them with training focused on how to recognize a student who has been abused by someone outside of the school, such as a relative or neighbor. However, that training does not necessarily focus on recognizing abuse by school employees. Here, Pennsylvania and California have led the way by expanding mandated reporter training to include free online training in the prevention of educator sexual misconduct.
States also have a critical role to play in assessing the risk of sexual abuse of students by school employees, not only to document and respond to such cases but also to determine the effectiveness of prevention strategies. However, it is believed that only about 10% of students who have been targets of employee sexual misconduct ever report their abuse to anyone at the school (Shakeshaft, 2004). Thus, few state and local leaders are likely to get an accurate picture of the scope and scale of the problem.
States can do much more to gather accurate data on sexual abuse in schools, much as they’ve taken steps to gather reliable data in other areas. For example, and as directed by the U.S. Department of Education, many states now require annual assessments of school safety and school climate, as well as the formation of school safety committees.
Beginning under No Child Left Behind, and continuing under ESSA, states have been required also to report incidents of violence and disciplinary infractions in their schools. On the details, though, the federal law is fuzzy, leaving the specifics up to local officials. For example, my state, Virginia, asks students, via an annual school climate survey, questions about bullying, peer-to-peer aggression, and gang activity; however, the survey includes no questions about sexual harassment or sex abuse by other students or school employees. This is critically important information, and every state should collect it — anonymously, if possible, since districts and states that use anonymous or confidential surveys that include questions on sexual harassment or misconduct find a much higher, and more likely to be accurate, incident rate than those that don’t (Singer, Von Thurn, & Miller, 1995).
States could also require universities and schools of education to provide training in appropriate professional boundaries, as well as bystander responsibility, as a requirement in teacher and administrator licensure programs. This training can be incorporated into existing courses or, as is done in many states with mandated reporter training, as an add-on to the curriculum.
The school and district levels
There is an odd relationship between the existence of a solution and the acknowledgment of a problem. If there’s no clear solution, people are all too likely to pretend there’s no problem to solve. And that’s exactly what some school and district leaders do: They say that predators can’t be stopped, and then they try to ignore the predators in their midst.
But in fact there are effective solutions at hand. Decades of practical work and empirical research findings have been distilled into a “standard of care” that delineates the specific actions that are known to help protect children from employee sexual misconduct (Shakeshaft et al., 2018). (This is not unlike medical standards of care, which specify, indeed prescribe, how medicine is best practiced.) See the sidebar (pp. 44-45), “Standard of care for the prevention of educator sexual misconduct,” for examples.
We’re all responsible
Schools are government institutions, and we think that governments are responsible for what happens in them. That may be so, but we as individuals share the responsibility as well. The #MeToo movement has power not because it aims just to influence policy makers but because countless individuals have spoken up, taking their concerns to the world. In the entertainment and broadcast industries, aggrieved individuals haven’t relied solely on petitioning their associations or their unions or their regulating agencies. They haven’t merely asked for legislation or professional development or more effective monitoring. Believing that “it is up to us,” they have shared their personal stories and gotten the whole public involved.
Schools are a bit different. We can’t expect children to take the lead. That is our job. However, our personal involvement, personal advocacy, and personal commitment to justice can be as powerful in education as they have been in the private sector.
My call, “It is up to us,” is meant also to be a comment on the current political environment. Many advocates for social justice are now far more optimistic about local progress than the prospects for change on a larger scale. And it is entirely possible that there is more good to be done, now, at the bottom of the system than at the top. But having followed the action — and inaction — at the federal and state levels for 30 years, I’m convinced that it remains as important as ever to keep part of the focus on Washington, D.C., and the state capitals. We have seen some welcome progress thanks to policy changes enacted in recent years, and we need to continue that momentum even as we build our movements at the local level. If, in a quasi-democratic institution like public schooling, we have not had enough progress, enough protection for abused children, then it is up to all of us to keep pushing on all of the doors we can.
Edmonds, R. (1979). Effective schools for the urban poor. Educational Leadership, 37 (1), 15-24.
Shakeshaft, C. (2004). Educator sexual misconduct: A synthesis of existing literature (Doc #2004-09). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary.
Shakeshaft, C., Smith, R.L., Keener, S.T., & Shakeshaft, E. (2018). A standard of care for the prevention of sexual misconduct by school employees. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. DOI: 10.1080/10538712.2018.1477219.
Singer, E., Von Thurn, D.R., & Miller, E.R. (1995) Confidentiality assurances and response: A quantitative review of the experimental literature. Public Opinion Quarterly, 59 (1), 66-77.
Standard of care for the prevention of educator sexual misconduct
Local school board policies
- Develop a specific educator sexual misconduct (ESM) policy that is separate from policies for sexual harassment or mandated reporting and make it available in faculty/staff, student, and parent handbooks and on the district website.
- List everyone who is covered by the ESM policy, including teachers, staff, volunteers, and others.
- Clearly define ESM (with examples), including the warning that sexual interaction with a child is a crime, that intent is not relevant, and that there are no consensual relationships between school adults and students of any age.
- Provide guidelines to assist staff in understanding boundaries and expected behaviors, including social media use.
- Provide a list of potential sanctions andpenalties, and make clear that those sanctions apply to all staff members.
- Include prevention procedures in hiring policies.
- Develop a clear policy for training school staff about the prevention ofESM, and provide resources for reference and follow-up.
- Make identifying red flags among adults andstudents part of school supervisors’ responsibilities.
- Provide detailed ESM reporting and investigative procedures that include a police or child services report and investigation; a separate report by the school district, information on legal remedies and support services available to complainants and student victims, and policies regarding informing staff, students, parents, and the media.
- Include statements prohibiting retaliation and pledging that victims will be treated with respect and care.
School and district hiring practices
- Use a common form for all applicants that includes a statement that incomplete or false information can result in termination.
- On the application form, ask for work history, with names and contact information for supervisor(s); references from past employment; volunteer experiences with youth-serving organizations; sufficient information to do a full background check in other states; questions about conviction of a crime, and if so, what crime(s); and questions about arrest and/or conviction of sexual or physical misconduct with children (varies by state).
- Screen all employees, not just those new to a system. This includes substitutes, coaches, and volunteers.
- Decide ahead of time which offenses will disqualify an applicant. Such offenses should include child abuse and a history of violence.
- Conduct federal, national, and state criminal background checks using fingerprint scans and social security numbers. In addition, search using online search engines, on social media sites, and in sex offender databases. Save all background checks until the end of the screening and selection process.
- Contact the supervisor and two other references at the applicant’s current position, as well as references for all previous positions. Include people not on the applicant’s list of references. Contact references bytelephone, and keep a written record of the content of the phone call and put this in the applicant’s file. When speaking with references, ask why the applicant left the position, if the applicant was accused of sexual or other misconduct, what the references know about any gaps in the applicant’s work history, and whether the reference would hire the applicant in a school that their child or grandchild attended. Match employment history with references listed to make sure all areas are included.
- When interviewing, ask open-ended questions that clarify and expand upon the written application, including gaps and why the applicant left previous positions. Ask questions about the applicant’s views on the relationship between students and adults in the school, when it is appropriate to touch a child and why, and any previous allegations of misconduct with a child.
- At the interview, share the school’s/district’s code of conduct with the applicant, and inform the applicant of the school/district policies on adult-student interactions.
- Provide training annually to all school staff who will have direct contact with students, not just teachers, and document the completion of that training.
- Make sure the training includes definitions and examples of ESM, behaviors that are acceptable and unacceptable, warning signs and red flags, short- and long-term effects of ESM, and policies for reporting suspicions of ESM and responding to allegations.
- Use training partners who have expertise in sexual abuse prevention and can use different teaching styles and levels of interactivity.
- Sweep the halls before classes start, during lunch, and after school, monitoring closed doors and obstructed windows. Include areas for after-school and evening activities, parkinglots, bathrooms and changing rooms, and isolated spaces in the school.
- Avoid allowing teachers to be alone with a student in a closed space: Use libraries, cafeterias, and conference rooms for tutoring. Have at least two adults present for after-school clubs, activities, and practices.
- Watch for suspicious behavior, such as a student riding in a school employee’s car and the same student repeatedly spending time alone with the same staff member.
- Encourage and model bystander behavior by asking questions of students and staff when you see something suspicious.
- Increase supervision of a staff member who is engaged in suspicious behavior or about whom rumors or allegations have been made. Watch for signs of intimidation of victim(s)/target(s) after an allegation has been made.
- Investigate and write reports on all allegations, following state and federal guidelines.
- Develop a system to track all allegations of educator sexual misconduct of cases.
- Support and protect victims and others who report abuse, keeping their names confidential and letting them know that they are immune from civil or criminal liability.
- Hold leaders legally responsible for ensuring that all cases of suspected ESM are reported to the proper authorities.
- Provide emotional, psychological, and academic support to the victim, and protect them from harassment and bullying by other students and staff members. Speak with the victim and the family regularly to monitor their well-being and put them in touch with victim services and other families that have volunteered to provide support.
- Provide opportunities for all students and staff to process and talk through the information that someone they might have admired and trusted has been arrested for or convicted of sexually abusing a student.
- Conduct a review of where safeguards failed to protect the student. Discuss and use for planning.
Citation: Shakeshaft, C. (2018). Preventing sexual assault in schools: It is up to us. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (2), 40-45.