Schools failing to protect students from sexual abuse by school personnel, federal report says

Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, requested the report on student sexual abuse by school employees. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource

Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, requested the report on student sexual abuse by school employees. Credit: Lillian Mongeau, EdSource Today

The failure of U.S. schools to protect students from sexual abuse by school personnel is a story of district cover-ups, lack of training, incomplete teacher background checks and little guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, according to a new federal report.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said the nation’s K-12 schools lack a systemic approach to preventing and reporting educator sexual abuse of students, despite a problem that the report said affects an estimated 9.6 percent of students – nearly one in 10 – who are subjected to sexual misconduct by teachers, coaches, principals, bus drivers and other personnel during their K-12 career. That figure is from a 2004 report made to the U.S. Department of Education and is the most recent estimate available, according to the Government Accountability Office report released last week.

“Although states and school districts are taking some positive steps,” the report said, “current efforts are clearly not enough.”

Hampered by inadequate access to employee background information, school districts unwittingly hire teachers and staff accused of sexually abusing students in other districts and states, the report said. With little training on how to recognize early signs of predatory behavior, school employees don’t always pay attention to a colleague who is “grooming” a student for sexual abuse with inappropriate attention. And some school districts quietly dismiss teachers accused of potential child sexual abuse, without alerting future employers or seeking to revoke teaching credentials, the report said.

“I think many school districts think they just need to report to their school principal or to the superintendent of the school,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, who requested the federal report as the ranking member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, in an interview with NBC News. “They don’t recognize that under the state law, where they have the laws, they have an obligation to report this to law enforcement officials.”

Miller added, “It’s not like these are unusual events, tragically so. There are people within the facilities that will prey upon these children.”

The findings of the Government Accountability Office echo complaints made in recent cases against the Los Angeles Unified School District and the Mt. Diablo Unified School District. Those complaints include charges that Los Angeles Unified failed to remove teacher Mark Berndt after allegations surfaced years earlier of potential sexual misconduct and that Mt. Diablo Unified conducted an investigation of teacher Joseph Martin and found potential child abuse but failed to report the suspicion to law enforcement. Berndt was convicted of 23 counts of lewd conduct and sentenced in November to 25 years in prison; Martin has pleaded not guilty to 125 felony molestation charges involving 13 former students.

Training needed

Under California law, school employees are “mandated” reporters of possible child abuse and must immediately notify law enforcement or Child Protective Services of their suspicions. School districts are required to ensure that employees know of the mandate, but they are not required to train employees in the nuances of recognizing abuse, although districts are “strongly encouraged” to do so, said Craig Cheslog, principal adviser to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson.

“The superintendent believes that training should be mandatory and should be annual,” Cheslog said, adding that Torlakson is in conversation with legislators to change the requirement.

And the training itself should specifically include how to spot and report inappropriate behavior between school employees and students, the report said. Trainings and information on issues such as school employee “boundary setting” and “adult sexual misconduct in schools” are available through various offerings from the federal departments of Education, Health and Human Services, and Justice, but most states don’t know about them, the report said.

Most crucial, states and districts have received only “limited” guidance from the Department of Education regarding the federal Title IX law, which is widely known for prohibiting discrimination in an education program based on sex but also requires schools to have procedures in place to protect students from sexual harassment by school personnel, the report said.

Further obscuring the issue, the report said, is that the federal government does not track the incidence of educator sexual abuse, despite collecting related information on child sexual abuse.

The report, which gathered information through a survey of state education departments, interviews and visits to schools and law enforcement agencies in Georgia, Massachusetts, Virginia and Washington, found considerable fault with federal education and child protection agencies. “No single agency is leading this effort,” the report noted, “and coordination among federal agencies to leverage their resources and disseminate information to assist state and local efforts is limited.”

In a case study cited in the report that exemplifies several issues, an unnamed district gave a second grade male teacher a positive recommendation – even though the teacher had been disciplined for downloading pornography and disciplined again, and not rehired, after a parent complained of the teacher’s excessive attention toward her second grade daughter. A second district conducted a background check, found no reason for concern and hired the teacher. After a parent told that district’s superintendent she suspected the teacher of sexually abusing a child, a principal investigated and determined the teacher had exercised “poor judgment.” A further district investigation deemed the incident a personnel matter.

The teacher was later convicted of aggravated criminal sexual abuse of two female students at the first school and eight female students at the second. Their failure to report potential child sexual abuse to law enforcement resulted in misdemeanor pleas by the school principal, the school district’s director of human resources and the district superintendent.

‘Sweeping it under the rug’

In California, no statewide mechanism exists to let school districts know that an employee has left, been fired or been offered a settlement related to allegations of misconduct with students, according to a 2012 California State Auditor report investigating how Los Angeles Unified handled child abuse allegations.

Districts are required to notify the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing within 30 days if a teacher has been dismissed pending an investigation of misconduct, which could serve as an alert to potential future employers. But the auditor report on Los Angeles Unified found that the district “often” did not do so, with 144 cases reported more than a year after the allegation and of those, 31 reported more than three years late. Reporting procedures have been improved in the district, the audit report said.

Seeking to make it easier for districts to dismiss abusive teachers, the Sacramento-based advocacy organization EdVoice is gathering signatures for a proposed November ballot measure that would, among other changes, prohibit school districts from cutting a deal – or agreeing to “gag orders” – with teachers to remove evidence of egregious misconduct from employee records; unfounded allegations could be removed, but only by a vote of the school board.


Terri Miller, president of the advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation. Credit: SoJoy Photography

Terri Miller, president of the Nevada-based advocacy group Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation, advises parents to report directly to law enforcement if they suspect a school employee may be sexually abusing a student.

“If they report to the school, the principal or the guidance counselor or the nurse will interview the child,” Miller said, “and by the time three, four or five people have talked to that child, the case becomes tainted. Prosecutors will point out that the child hasn’t told exactly the same story.”

Calling in a trained police investigator to interview a child will produce a clearer picture of the alleged incident and likely subject the child to fewer interviews, she said.

“School systems have customarily tried to handle these situations by sweeping it under the rug, by letting child predators quietly resign and go on to another district, sometimes with glowing recommendations,” said Miller, who was interviewed by the staff of the Government Accountability Office as they prepared the report. “We see that as deliberate and calculated child endangerment.”

Jane Meredith Adams covers student health. Contact her or follow her on Twitter @JaneAdams. Sign up here for EdHealth, EdSource Today’s free newsletter on student health. 

Know the Warning Signs of Educator Sexual Misconduct, Phi Delta Kappan, Charol Shakeshaft, professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, Feb. 2013

Filed under: Discipline, Hot Topics, Student Health, Student Wellbeing

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10 Responses to “Schools failing to protect students from sexual abuse by school personnel, federal report says”

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  1. Joe Salvati on Nov 17, 2014 at 11:08 am11/17/2014 11:08 am

    • 000

    Shouldn’t there be a federal license of some sort of education – at least as far as background checks go? It would make it impossible for someone to be moved quietly from one locale to the next if when they are hired they need to pass a background check to make sure they aren’t an offender. At a minimum each state can create a list of individuals that is shared amongst the states so a district can make an informed choice.

  2. Alice on Oct 16, 2014 at 6:00 am10/16/2014 6:00 am

    • 000

    Sadly, this scenario plays out every day in offices, in hospitals, universities and in stores around the world. Recent statistics on sexual harassment at workplace shows that 79% of the victims are women and 21% are men.

    You can check this research on this link:

  3. Gary Ravani on Feb 6, 2014 at 2:25 pm02/6/2014 2:25 pm

    • -11-100

    There does need to be better training re “mandated reporting” and there is current legislation to do that.
    As the State Auditor’s report asserted, district administrations need to do their jobs. Educators verifiably found to have abused children in any way should be removed from the classroom, lose their credential, and be criminally prosecuted if that is applicable.

    That being said, please note:

    Note that the current “report” is based on a 2004 “study” done by a lady named Shakeshaft. This is a quote from an EdWeek article on the “study” at that time:

    “Ms. Shakeshaft’s review found a dearth of hard data on the prevalence of sexual misconduct in the schools. No national repository of such information exists, and no studies have yielded authoritative figures.”

    Ms. Shakshaft admitted that there was little/no empirical data to be had that supported her estimates of “10%” of students involved. She then challenged anyone to refute her estimates because there was no data either way. Heads I win, tails you lose.

  4. g. de la verdad on Feb 6, 2014 at 1:11 pm02/6/2014 1:11 pm

    • 000

    Once it hits the fan, it’s too late to duck. When child abuse of any kind is suspected, every adult should know they have a moral obligation to report their suspicions to legal authorities. No one should be allowed to fall back on “I didn’t know it was a law.”

    The fact that highly educated school officials, from teachers to district staff to school board members, would choose to just “have a talk” with a repeat-offender — one whose behavior was, on multiple occasions, reported by various teachers and a hush-hush internal inquiry as being ‘highly suspicious’ (as was the case in the Mt. Diablo district) and in essence, by having ‘that talk’ tell the offender to “just be more careful” speaks volumes about not only a failure to understand the law, but also a failure to care for the weakest among us.

    The very need to have a Congressional investigation of child abuse shows a systemic moral ineptitude reaching to the highest levels of education.

  5. Doctor J on Feb 6, 2014 at 8:36 am02/6/2014 8:36 am

    • 000

    Mt Diablo USD withheld from public disclosure many documents from a Public Records request by the Bay Area News Group [Mercury News]and BANG sued. That case is pending in Contra Costa Superior Court, Case MSN13-1551. It is coming to a head on March 19. Meanwhile the opening briefs and declarations by BANG were just filed on Feb 3 and MDUSD’s are due next week. On Feb 3, BANG filed its Memorandum of Points and Authorities, a Declaration of Carolan Duffy, and a Request for in camera review of the withheld documents. I would hope you or someone in the media will get these court filings and post them for the public to see what our elected officials are hiding.
    Congressman Miller, bless his heart, read about these allegations in the newspaper, along with a BANG survey of the lack of mandated reporter training in many school districts and initiated the federal investigation. What will it take to impress upon administrators and teachers that FAILURE TO REPORT REASONABLE SUSPICION of child abuse is a CRIME ? Unfortunately, perhaps a couple of these pretty face adminstrators dressed in orange jumpsuits and chrome bracelets doing the perp walk on the evening news for “failing to report”. Sad but true. Read this horrifying article from a year ago about lack of mandated training. The reporter later in a blog reported that one Superintendent demanded that she retract the article because “he” wanted all reports of abuse in his district to be first “screened” by his staff before they were reported to the authorities. Fortunately the reporter refused and pointed out to the Supt this his actions would be considered a crime.


    • Jane Meredith Adams on Feb 6, 2014 at 10:54 am02/6/2014 10:54 am

      • 000

      Thanks, Doctor J, for the link to the great article and survey information. I will keep an eye on the case. Please feel free to keep me in the loop as well.

      • Doctor J on Feb 6, 2014 at 12:14 pm02/6/2014 12:14 pm

        • 000

        We are now awaiting the CC Times reporter to post the BANG Memorandum and Request for In Camera Review — she said the Declaration was too large for the attorney to email, which tells me it is full of information and attachments — probably a gold mine of information on the case so to speak. Perhaps someone can go to the courthouse and get a copy since it is a public record, and then upload it in sections. The other documents should be uploaded and a link provided to view them in the CC Times Education blog.

          • Doctor J on Feb 6, 2014 at 6:55 pm02/6/2014 6:55 pm

            • 000

            Just checked with the reporter — she says she will try sometime tonight. Beggars can’t be choosey. :-)

  6. navigio on Feb 6, 2014 at 7:54 am02/6/2014 7:54 am

    • 000

    There are things besides personnel issues that play a role as well. Miromonte was, at one point I believe, one of the largest schools in LAUSD, and it was an elementary school! That’s insane. Dynamics that force district administration and the BoE to follow strategies of creating schools that are inherently difficult to oversee at a personal level is part of the problem. We need to create a base staffing model for our schools, and ideally, show how size may change those requirements.

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