Sexually abusive teachers: Frighteningly numerous

I was going to post something quick and light today, but after coming across this article I couldn’t help myself. The AP has an article out today (link: “Sexual misconduct plagues U.S. schools”) based on their investigation into the world of sexually abusive educators — and they’ve found that that world is our world. Their summary bullets (based on the CNN webpage where I came across it):

  • AP: Educators were punished in 2,500 sex cases from bizarre to sadistic
  • Accused are overwhelmingly male, often popular, recognized for excellence
  • Quiet punishments allow many violators move on to other schools
  • One in 10 victimized children reports sexual abuse, say academic studies

Their seven-month investigation found that 2,570 educators, over the period from 2001 to 2005, experienced changes to their teaching credentials due to allegations of sexual misconduct. Other comments in the article are even more condemning.

Beyond the horror of individual crimes, the larger shame is the institutions that govern education have only sporadically addressed a problem that’s been apparent for years.

“From my own experience — this could get me in trouble — I think every single school district in the nation has at least one perpetrator. At least one,” says Mary Jo McGrath, a California lawyer who has spent 30 years investigating misconduct in schools. “It doesn’t matter if it’s urban or rural or suburban.”

Don’t expect much help from the teachers’ unions. Again, from the article:

Two major teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, each denounced sex abuse while emphasizing the need to consider educators’ rights.

Kathy Buzad of the AFT said that “if there’s one incident of sexual misconduct between a teacher and a student that’s one too many.”

In practice, the AP found less vigilance.

The AP discovered efforts to stop individual offenders but, overall, a deeply entrenched resistance toward recognizing and fighting abuse. It starts in school hallways, where fellow teachers look away or feel powerless to help. School administrators make behind-the-scenes deals to avoid lawsuits and other trouble. And in state capitals and Congress, lawmakers shy from tough state punishments or any cohesive national policy for fear of disparaging a vital profession.

That only enables rogue teachers, and puts kids who aren’t likely to be believed in a tough spot.

(By the way: It is not that I do not believe that there are many good people in the teachers’ unions — people with whom I would agree and disagree on a variety of issues. I just think that — on the whole, and as organizations — the unions are more interested in preserving their power base than anything else. Sometimes this may be good for children. Other times it is not.)

Comments in the article from Robert Shoop, a KSU educational administration professor, are chilling. After condemning late-night talk shows and their ilk for trivializing such tragedies, he says:

“In other cases, it’s reported as if this is some deviant who crawled into the school district — ‘and now that they’re gone, everything’s OK.’ But it’s much more prevalent than people would think.”

He and others who track the problem reiterated one point repeatedly during the AP investigation: Very few abusers get caught.

They point to academic studies estimating that only about one in 10 victimized children report sexual abuse of any kind to someone who can do something about it. When it is reported, teachers, administrators and some parents frequently don’t — or won’t — recognize the signs that a crime is taking place.

One young woman spoke up about the effects on her life due to the teacher who abused her: “I didn’t have my childhood… He had me so matured at so young. I remember going from little baby dolls to just being an adult.” (Perhaps her school district should have simply provided her birth control pills…)

The AP article rightly notes that this will bring up comparisons to the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandals, and it should. Whether the public outcry will be as large, only time will tell. I’m certainly no fan of the Catholic Church or it’s doctrines (1 Timothy 4:1-3, I believe, highlights one source of its troubles among many), but it’s easy to see that the Roman Church is a much more popular punching bag in our media than the public school systems are. We’ll see if the systemic problems and lack of effective accountability that continue to allow such perverted individuals to remain in positions of influence and power over our children in the public schools will be attacked as publicly and passionately as the Catholic Church’s problems have been. I’m not optimistic, but willing to wait and see.

Bible prophecies speak of a time to come when children truly are safe (Zech. 8:4-6). This is not that time. And sadly, our schools are no exception.

I’ve quoted them liberally — please visit the AP article I linked to above, “Sexual misconduct plagues U.S. schools”, read it, and draw your own conclusions.

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11 thoughts on “Sexually abusive teachers: Frighteningly numerous

  1. Aaron

    While I don’t trivialize the horrors that these children have experienced, I do want to point out the following. The numbers given in the story amount to 8 hundredths of a percent of the population over the course of five years. Even given the fact that this is most assuredly a lowball number, it doesn’t represent a “widespread epidemic” in our country. Although even one incident is one too many (spoken as both a parent and a professional educator) this story seems to be presented as a sensationalized account to engender fear and pump viewer/readership. In addition, some might take this as an attack on public education in an attempt to further undermine its importance in our society. Many of the comments were one sided and some bordered on hearsay and speculation. In conclusion, the problem presented – the assault of children by those in positions of power – is incredibly horrific, but one could probably find comparable numbers of assault and abuse of trust in other relationships such as doctors, dentists, childcare workers or any position where there is a power imbalance.

  2. barkos

    So by the logic of the article, .008 % of teachers are guilty and 99.002% of them we have no issues with? This does not sound like a “widespread problem” as CNN describes it. I think it is clearly inaccurate for CNN to frame it as such.

  3. Greetings, Aaron and barkos, and thanks for the comments.

    First, I must say that it is not my intention to slam the profession of teaching. Having been a math teacher myself for several years, I know of many who give of all they have to serve the kids placed under their care. I’ve seen that sacrifice personally – up close and first hand.

    Secondly, I appreciate your shared desire to ensure this topic is discussed with proper perspective – something that often gets lost in stories like these.

    Thirdly, I have to correct your math, barkos – after all, I was a math teacher! 🙂 It would be 0.08%, like Aaron points out, or close to 1 in every 1000.

    But the figure can be misleading. After all, an estimated 9 in 10 cases are not reported – does that mean that the real figure could go as high as 0.8% — or almost 1 in 100?

    Truth be told, there is not enough info in this article to turn the number of offenders into a “percentage of population” statistic – it could be lower than 0.08% or higher than 0.8%. The article does not give enough info to draw that sort of conclusion. (After being a math teacher I became an actuary, so proper use of data is important to me, too.)

    And even assuming (since we don’t know) that the proportion of child abusers is the same in education as it is for doctors and dentists, this is still a much worse. Why? Because the ability to care for children is part and parcel of the teaching profession. Having a teacher who abuses children is like having a dentist who purposefully mangles teeth or a doctor who purposefully misdiagnoses his patients to cause them harm.

    The public educational system asks a lot of the public and has an incredible impact on society – it should be held up to the highest of standards, and this should be done in the light of day. Aaron’s point that “some might take this as an attack on public education in an attempt to further undermine its importance in our society,” taken too far, takes us to a dangerous place, I believe. It is because public education has such an important impact on our society that such discussions and investigations are important. Frankly, ignoring the problems with our public education system (results versus other countries, abuses, financial waste, etc.) would be more symptomatic of a sentiment of undermined importance. I agree with you, Aaron, some might take the article that way. But I don’t think that makes the subject something that should be “shushed.” All the more, the vital dependence our society has on the educational system makes such topics all the more important.

    What seems particularly condemnable is how the system treats these offenders and how easy it was for them to maintain access to children. The comments from Charol Shakeshaft near the end of the article, explaining how easy it is for abusers to move from one system to another and retain their licenses, are worthy of note in this regard.

    I know that when I entered the teaching profession in Texas, there was much discussion about the status of that profession – that is, is it really a profession or isn’t it? Of course, I believed it was, but I also recognized that the other side of the argument (that it was a skill, or a trade, or etc.) had some good points: If a profession, where is the universally recognized standard for certification? How exactly does one earn his credentials? And, the relevant one in this case: What was the system for formal and recognized “in house” discipline?

    After teaching, I became an actuary and saw for the first time what a real profession was like from the inside. And from that point on, while I did not want to disparage the educational profession, I saw that the “no it’s not” crowd had a better argument than I had previously thought. Clearly (to me, at least), the teaching profession is not policing and disciplining its own properly. If teachers ever want the stigma of questionable “profession” status to go away, stronger standards of internal discipline is one of the things they need to address, and one of the things that teachers should not let the AFT and NEA put off or make excuses for.

    I’m not saying that CNN – or, more properly, the AP – did not make this a more sensational report than it could have been (though I’m not conceding that they did). And I am certainly not one of CNN’s or the AP’s biggest fans. But if this story has legs, it is for a good reason – just as story of abuse by Catholic clergy was worthy, this is, too. The “quiet punishment” aspect of both situations is particularly disturbing.

    I’m all for putting things into perspective. And if the AP story is in need of a more accurate perspective I hope it comes – and soon. But I also hope it comes from someone other than the usual Public Education Apologists, so it will be a correction with credibility. And if the brief moment which this story will occupy in the public’s short attention span afflicted consciousness causes school systems and teachers’ unions to roll up their sleeves and create a more effective discipline and accountability process, that would be fantastic.

    Thanks, again, Aaron and barkos, for your comments!

    Best regards,
    Wallace Smith

  4. concerned citizen

    Thank you for such a detailed, articulate response Wallace. This is an issue that has personally impacted our family, although my child was not the one sexually abused, thank God, she was tragically affected. My child chose to report the behavior of one female HS teacher who had numerous sexual relationships with male students over the years. The school administrators and school board had all information given to them on this woman, and worked hard to keep it quiet. This “teacher” is unbelievably still in place. This is a great article and hope it wakes people up. For those who want to downplay the problem, spend a little time at http://www.teachertrash.blogspot.com.

  5. Howdy, concerned citizen, and thanks for your story. I’m so sorry that y’all have had to go through what you have.

    BTW, I’m also sorry that I felt the need to edit the very end of your comment! The second website that you gave is certainly powerful, but I did not feel comfortable giving so many details of individuals who have been accused, even though the info is public knowledge and most of those listed in the first page actually wereconvicted (except one or two pending cases). It is certainly and alarming site and brings the impact home, like you suggested it would, as did the first site you posted.

    And thanks for your kind words. I hope the best for your child and your family.

    Best regards,
    Wallace Smith

  6. Hi Mr. Smith,

    I don’t know if you spotted that article before I sent the Yahoo/AP link to you, but this reply isn’t about me. It’s about the way you’ve handled this article, the issues it raises and the replies it’s generated. Kudos all around, and please keep up the good work.

  7. riddlej

    I used to subscribe to this ultra-conservative magazine, the Whistleblower, and even though it was sometimes ridiculous, they did a story about this in the past year or two that was true and shocking. No matter how much people want to defend the fact that sexual misconduct between teachers and students is low relative to the number of children who don’t have problems, the outrageous ways it occurs and how it is handled is cause for shame. The fact that any adult would stoop to the level of sexually engaging children is so immoral as to not warrant justification. The fact that these adults are supposed to be guardians of children’s wellbeing and education just makes it worse.

    The fact is that modernity + our oversexualized nation makes teacher-child abuse much more common that it should be. I am sure you are right that at least one staff member in each school can be suspected of having impure motives towards the children—and wherever one may be absent, the neighboring school has two. If you get into the student body, most children can tell you they know a friend who is/was at least inappropriately related to a teacher. they know who those teachers are.

    Moreover, children with cell phones, cars, or children whose parents don’t take care of them after-hours are prime targets for illicit relationships with all kinds of people, forgetting teachers. This kind of stuff simply didn’t happen in our grandparents’ generation and it was relatively rare during our parents generation. (Catholic problem notwithstanding). So let’s not kid ourselves that it isn’t a growing and serious problem, even though the percentages are low compared to something else.

  8. Howdy, and thanks, riddlej.

    I appreciate what you’ve written and I think that your points are well made. People are too quick to say, “It’s always been thus,” when — frankly — it hasn’t always been thus.

    It is a serious problem, and I hope that those who are in positions where they could do something actually do something.

    Thanks, again!
    Wallace Smith

  9. Pingback: The Pope, sex abuse scandals, and the AP on U.S. schools « Thoughts En Route

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