Sexual misconduct widespread in schools, national report says

Lawrence district has effective policy to investigate claims, Weseman says

Nearly 10 percent of U.S. elementary and secondary students endure sexual misconduct by employees at their schools, ranging from inappropriate jokes all the way to molestation, according to a report to Congress.

But while the report, which was issued Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Education, found many school districts lack even the means to investigate claims of sexual misconduct by educators, that’s not the case in Lawrence, educators said.

“We move quickly on those cases,” Supt. Randy Weseman said. “At least when it has happened, we have.”

If a claim of sexual misconduct is filed against an employee and the district determines it has merit, Weseman said, the employee is suspended with pay until an investigation is completed.

He could remember only one case in the past several years involving sexual misconduct between a teacher and student. That was in 2001 and led to the resignation of a Southwest Junior High School teacher.

But many school districts do not formally investigate claims of sexual misconduct by educators, according to the report. And that can lead to an environment in which students are reluctant to report abuse, particularly when it involves an authority figure.

The adults “lie to them, isolate them, make them feel complicit, and manipulate them into sexual contact,” the report said. “Often teachers target vulnerable or marginal students who are grateful for the attention.”

The numbers

The report covers students from kindergarten to 12th grade and all school employees, including teachers, coaches, bus drivers, counselors and administrators.

Teachers or teacher’s aides are responsible for about 40 percent of incidents, the report found. Black and Latino students are more likely than white students to be targets of misconduct. About 56 percent of students who reported misconduct were female, and 57 percent of the offenders were male.

Although the study was commissioned to look at only sexual abuse, researcher Charol Shakeshaft, an education professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., chose to broaden the scope to include lesser infractions, such as sexual comments, graffiti and groping.

“Most people just don’t think this can really happen,” Shakeshaft said. “We imagine that all teachers are like most teachers, in that they’ve gone into teaching to help children. Most do, but not all. We need to acknowledge that’s the case and do something to stop it.”

In a particularly troubling finding, the report says that in elementary schools, the abuser is often one of the people liked most by students and trusted most by parents.

The report, which is required under the No Child Left Behind Act, was based on existing research, including almost 900 documents that have dealt with the topic in some way.

Shakeshaft wrote that if surveys in 2000 by the American Association of University Women accurately represented the experiences of students from kindergarten through 12th grade, more than 4.5 million students were subject to sexual misconduct by an employee sometime during their educational career.

The full report is available online at research/pubs/misconductreview/index.html.

Teachers’ response

Teachers’ representatives seized on the report’s sweeping scope to defend school employees.

“The thing that concerns educators about this report is that it lumps together harassment with other issues,” said Michael Pons, spokesman for the National Education Assn., the country’s largest teachers union.

Weseman had not read the report and so declined to comment on it specifically. Lawrence Education Assn. President Sam Rabiola had not read it either, but said sexual misconduct among educators was “not acceptable behavior.”

Pons had reviewed the study. He said he considered Shakeshaft an “alarmist,” saying he had looked at other reports done by her.

“She considers calling a person ‘sweetheart’ sexual harassment,” Pons said of Shakeshaft. “There’s a certain bias to this report.”

Incidents of sexual misconduct among school employees will occur. But if a report or claim is filed, they will be dealt with, he said.


But that reasoning misses the point, said Brian Jones, general counsel at the Department of Education.

“It’s important to be made aware of all of the incidents of misconduct that occur in the classroom, whether it’s criminal sex assault or inappropriate sexual jokes,” he said. “Schools ought to be held accountable. Schools and school districts ought to do a better job of screening and training.”

The AAUW, whose surveys formed the core of the report, stood by its research.

Robert Shoop, a Kansas State University professor of education law and an expert on sexual exploitation in schools, said the estimate that one in 10 children endured abuse was not high. In fact, he said, the actual number may be larger because of underreporting of the problem.

Pons, however, said that schools were the safest place a child could be.

“We want parents to continue to have confidence in knowing that a school is a community where their children are cared for,” he said. “But beyond that, parents should pay attention to what is happening. Talk to your kids.”

— Staff writer Alicia Henrikson can be reached at 832-7155.

— Journal-World wire services contributed to this report.