Sexual Misconduct in Our Schools — And What to Do

Teachers in trouble

The postcard above is one recieved by Frank Thomas for his Postsecret project (he asked people to send him a secret from their lives on a 3×5 postcard). He hasn’t used it on the Postsecret site yet – maybe it’s too controversial. Nobody likes to talk about sex abuse in schools, which is what this is. We better start not only talking about it, but doing something, because it’s a growing problem.

The AP recently ran a story that emerged from a seven-month study they conducted. After researching K-12 schools in every state in the US, they found 2,570 cases of sexual misconduct in the years from 2001 to 2005. Keep in mind that behind each of these 2,570 cases is a traumatized person — and usually more than one. It seems that many of these cases were the result of sexually inappropriate conduct perpetrated against numerous victims. The article does a good job of telling some of the stories, which helps put a human face on these cases.

The article also mentions a report mandated by Congress on this subject. This report estimated that as many as 4.5 million students, out of roughly 50 million in American schools, are subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade. (That figure includes verbal harassment that is sexual in nature.) Put another way, this means that nearly 1 out of 10 students will be subject to sexual misconduct by a member of school staff.

We will see how the results of this study and this story play out, but as the article suggests, this represents misconduct on a scale similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church. A review by America’s Catholic bishops found that about 4,400 of 110,000 priests were accused of molesting minors from 1950 through 2002. Doing the math reveals that 4% of priests were accused of molesting minors.

Beyond this, of course, is the fact that reported cases of abuse that end in dismissal of the teacher represent only the tip of the iceberg. As the article states: “Most of the abuse never gets reported. Those cases [that are] reported often end with no action. Cases investigated sometimes can’t be proven, and many abusers have several victims. And no one — not the schools, not the courts, not the state or federal governments — has found a surefire way to keep molesting teachers out of classrooms.”

There’s a frustrating disconnect in our culture about sex that only serves to fan the flames of abuse perpetrated against minors. On the one hand, we (rightly) recognize the destructive power of sexual victimization, and we remove people who are guilty of misconduct. On the other hand, popular culture also seems to encourage the sexualization of girls. (See an earlier article, which references a report from the American Psychological Association on the sexualization of girls in our society.)

I don’t want to to just be part of the group of hand-wringing, “ain’t it awful” whiners that often emerge from reports like this. I want to be part of the solution. And there are some things we can do. What follows are three recommendations for people involved in education:

1. All schools need to look again at their sexual misconduct policies, and be sure they are appropriate. Nothing new here. I suspect most schools have done this already. But if not, they should.

2. Schools need to increase their training for teachers around sexual issues. The more sexualized the environment we live in – and who would disagree that teen culture in our schools is highly sexually charged? – the more vulnerable we are to act on our sexual urges. Teachers are sexual beings, just like everyone else, and they are subject to the same temptations, dysfunctions, and destructive urges as other people. Teachers need not only training that centers around “just say no” moralism, they need strategies to help them deal with their own sexuality, and safe places they can go to get help if they are struggling. Which brings me to …

3. Schools need to increase support for teachers around sexual issues, so that people who are struggling with sexual issues can get help before they violate boundaries and become offenders. I have worked with a number of teachers who were struggling with sexual compulsivity / dependency – some who had done something inappropriate with students and some who had not. What is evident is that teachers are paranoid that if anyone finds out that they are seeking help around sexual issues, they will lose their jobs. So this culture of fear creates a “don’t ask/don’t tell” atmosphere … where a teacher who is struggling with pornography and masturbation, and finding him or herself viewing students in an increasingly sexualized way … has nowhere to go to help deal with these destructive urges. Instead of getting help, they try harder to keep those thoughts out of their mind. Many are successful in doing this, but some are not … as we can see from the statistics.

I’m not in any way trying to defend people who victimize vulnerable students. I’m only suggesting that we do more work on prevention, and more openly discuss issues of sexuality in the teaching profession. We need more than better policies and harsher punishment. We need training and practical support for teachers who are trying to do their best in a difficult environment.

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