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

February 5, 2014

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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

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