From costly lawsuits on behalf of victims to negative media coverage, such as the one recently played out in the District of Columbia Public Schools when Chancellor Michelle Rhee stated that one teacher was laid off for suspicion of sexual misconduct, districts can face potentially devastating consequences as a result of sexual abuse of their students by district employees.
By adopting strong policies that include training all their personnel about what sexual abuse is, how to spot the warning signs, and what to do if they suspect a co-worker is doing something improper, administrators can diminish the impacts and try to prevent future incidents.
"We have an epidemic of educator sexual misconduct in our nation's schools, and nothing is really being done to curtail it. Most of the time, districts would rather stick their heads in the sand than face these issues as they should," declares Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation (SESAME), a Las Vegas-based nonprofit advocacy organization.
"A lot of districts try to cover up or discourage complaints [of sexual abuse or harassment] or don't follow through on them because they make superficial judgments that they are specious complaints," according to Marvin Kreps, the director of curriculum and instruction in the Rhinebeck (N.Y.) Central School District. "That's a very risky strategy."
Rhinebeck administrators were required to take aggressive action, including training all district personnel in what the warning signs of abuse are and how to report them, as the result of a lawsuit filed in 2003 against the district and a high school principal who allegedly sexually harassed several of the school's students.
A court approved a consent decree, an agreement between the parties in the case, which required the training and ordered the district to pay $152,500 in compensation to the student victims and to pay their attorney fees as well.
Becoming More Apparent
There is no firm data on the number of sexual abuse incidents in school districts. An estimated 90,000 cases of child sexual abuse were substantiated in the United States in 2003, the latest year for which there is data, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
The data do not identify how many of those cases involved school districts. An Associated Press investigation identified 2,570 cases from 2001 to 2005 in which teachers were punished or removed from the classroom for sexual misconduct, with allegations ranging from fondling to rape.
The news service collected the information from state agencies responsible for teacher licensing. Sexual abuse in schools "is not more prevalent—it's just more apparent," asserts Mary Jo McGrath, an attorney and founder of McGrath Training Systems, which trains many district leaders on how to address sexual abuse issues.
One reason it is more apparent, she says, is that local police agencies are paying more attention to it. "The police used to respond to cases like this with, 'It's he said, she said, and we're not getting into it.' Now they have been better trained to pay attention to these things," McGrath says.
Call the Police
Calling the police is the first action administrators should take when they suspect a district employee of sexually abusing a student, maintains Robyn Wiktorski- Reynolds, advocate program coordinator at Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services, a nonprofit center in Buffalo, N.Y.
Police trained in sex crime investigation can do a better job than district leaders themselves or private investigators that districts might hire in collecting evidence as well as protecting the reputations of the districts and their employees if they find no crime occurred, Wiktorski-Reynolds says.
Her organization pushed that message at a conference, "Sexual Abuse and Our Schools: What Every Administrator Should Know About Child Sex Abuse," that it sponsored for the first time for district administrators in the Buffalo area last November.
Forty-five administrators, including superintendents and principals, as well as some school board members, attended the conference from 19 districts. Many districts wanted to send school counselors, nurses and social workers, but the conference was limited to administrators, because "we knew we needed to target the policy-makers" as the ones who could initiate and lead effective programs against sexual abuse, Wiktorski-Reynolds says.
A conference speaker—Chris O'Brien, an attorney with the O'Brien Boyd law firm in Williamsville, N.Y.—suggested other actions districts should take, including responding to media questions through just one district spokesperson to ensure delivery of a consistent message, offering to meet with the victim and his or her family, offering to provide or pay for private counseling for the victim, and apologizing and showing compassion for the victim.
Aside from forming good partnerships with local law enforcement agencies, districts should do the same with local rape crisis centers, says Wiktorski-Reynolds. They are a "wonderful resource" to crime victims and can support districts in staff education and training, she continues.
A Buffalo Case
An incident in the Buffalo Public Schools in November 2007 in which a teacher's aide was accused of molesting a 4-year-old autistic boy in a school bathroom prompted an aggressive training program for all district employees, overseen by Will Keresztes, associate superintendent for educational services.
Keresztes personally trains all principals, as well as central office administrators, in a daylong group session every August, before the academic year begins, and then they are expected to train their teachers and other staff members accordingly.
The training, which follows New York state law on child abuse and the Buffalo district's own policies and regulations, mostly spells out how employees should report suspicions of abuse by another employee. In short, they are required to report it to their principal or other building administrator, who then must notify the police and the district superintendent.
The suspect in the incident is placed on administrative leave pending a police investigation, Keresztes explains. Under the Buffalo district's policy on child abuse, neglect and maltreatment, which includes sexual abuse, superintendents or their designated administrators who "reasonably and in good faith" report allegations of child abuse to law enforcement officials "shall have immunity from any liability, civil or criminal, which might otherwise result by reason of such actions."
The Buffalo district has its own chief of police, one of several chiefs in the local police department under the police commissioner. The chief assigned to handle all police-related matters in the Buffalo schools immediately turns a sex abuse allegation over to the sex offense squad, which conducts the probe.
Many police departments have units, sometimes called vice squads, comprised of officers specially trained to investigate sex crimes. The 2007 incident prompted the Buffalo district to launch a comprehensive review of its sexual abuse policy and regulations, Keresztes says.
"We wanted to make sure every single principal was as well versed in them as I and our legal department were. We expect our principals to be experts in the policy and regulations," he says.
Principals receive annual training in sexual abuse issues, and "they are expected to turnkey a mini-version of it every year with their staffs," Keresztes says.
Meanwhile, in the autistic boy case, a judge acquitted the defendant of the charges against him last November following a nonjury trial. According to local news reports, the former teacher's aide said he hoped to be reinstated to a job in the Buffalo schools, but Keresztes said he was "not at liberty" to discuss that or any other questions about the case because of "pending civil litigation."
The Buffalo News reported in January 2009 that the parents of the boy whom the aide allegedly abused had sued the district for unspecified damages and that the Buffalo Board of Education had hired a local law firm. The News reported that Michael J. Looby, the school system's legal counsel, said the legal costs to the district could reach up to $70,000 if the case went to trial. Looby, like Keresztes, did not respond to questions about the case.
Trolling and Grooming
The Rhinebeck district conducted a different type of training after the consent decree approved by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York in 2006 required the school district to "retain an expert regarding sexual harassment training and prevention."
The district retained McGrath's firm, which completed a three-year training program in the district last December. In addition to training all Rhinebeck pre-K12 students "in age-appropriate language" about what sexual abuse is and how to report it if they are victim, McGrath trained all Rhinebeck administrators in how to respond to complaints and also in warning signs of abuse.
McGrath generally advises administrators to spot and follow the trail of clues to identify employees engaged in "trolling and grooming" that could lead them into abusive situations. She defines trolling as how perpetrators look for targets by engaging in minor violations of students' personal boundaries, like a teacher who "frequently leans too close" or a custodian "who often chats too long and too personally" with a student.
If perpetrators judge that a student is not offended by the moves, they begin to "groom" a target student, perhaps starting with compliments and other "warm and friendly" attention to the student. Perpetrators will continue engaging with their targets, "lulling them in closer and closer," bonding with them, and establishing a "love relationship."
A perpetrator will then make sexual demands of the target student as part of maintaining their relationship, McGrath explains. "The difficulty with trying to link somebody with trolling and grooming is that other people will dismiss the behaviors with, 'Oh, he's just that way. He would never do anything.' These are all bright orange flags" that should alert administrators to pay attention and act accordingly, McGrath says.
Under the Rhinebeck district's policy on sexual harassment, which includes sexual abuse, prohibited conduct includes "unwelcome leering, sexual flirtations or propositions." The policy makes clear that all complaints will be "held in confidence" and that any staff member who fails to report a complaint "may be subject to disciplinary action."
Kreps says Rhinebeck will continue annual training on its own for all district employees and students.
Among other districts that have used McGrath's training, the Caddo Public School District in Shreveport, La., engaged her company to train its more than 6,000 employees after local police arrested two district teachers in 2007 and charged them in sexual abuse incidents. One is in prison and the other is awaiting trial, reports Roy Murry, the district's security director.
"The thing that was most disturbing was that we heard from people, 'Well, I heard something like that was going on,' but they didn't report it," Murry says. "So we knew we had to get awareness out there that you need to report these types of things when you hear or suspect something."
Investing in Insurance
For the Francis Howell (Mo.) School District and more than 470 other districts in Missouri, sexual misconduct training for all personnel is required by the administrator of an insurance pool—the Missouri United School Insurance Council (MUSIC)—that the districts have joined to protect them against the costs of potential lawsuits. MUSIC provides a wide range of coverage and includes sexual abuse under general liability coverage.
Arthur J. Gallagher Risk Management Services in St. Louis, which administers MUSIC, makes it mandatory that all districts in the pool use "Smarter Adults— Safer Children: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse," a training program of in2vate, previously known as The AGOS Group, a risk management company based in Tulsa, Okla., that helps organizations prevent workplace loss and litigation.
Districts that fail to complete the training face a $100,000 deductible on payment of claims involving sexual impropriety with a student, says Anita L. Kiehne, area vice president for claims management at Arthur J. Gallagher. When a district renews its MUSIC membership annually, both its superintendent and school board president must sign off on it, acknowledging that their district has completed the training, Kiehne says.
in2vate provides DVDs, facilitators' guides and handouts to districts that want to conduct the training themselves, or it sends its own trainers to districts that want to do it. District employees can also get the training online. Like the McGraw program, the in2vate program includes warning signs that administrators should look for and guidance on how they should respond. "We learned what 'grooming' is," says Kevin Supple, chief financial officer of the Francis Howell district.
The district has been training its personnel annually, from superintendent to custodians and parent volunteers, and the district has not had to file a sexual abuse claim in five years, says Supple, who also is chair of the Risk Management Committee of the Association of School Business Officials International and a board member of the Public School Risk Institute, which is a nonprofit association focused on risk management.
Kiehne, the litigation manager for MUSIC, says she receives many reports of possible sexual abuse incidents from districts that do not become claims. "We get them when a teacher observes a co-worker maybe doing nothing more than paying too much attention to a kid, or keeping the door closed during a tutoring session," she explains.
Then members of a 17-person unit at the Gallagher firm work with the district to investigate the report and suggest how the district might respond, like relocating a teacher and student to different buildings, counseling the teacher, or talking with the student's parents. "Our goal is to look at ways to prevent and mitigate losses," Kiehne declares. Insurance pools for school districts operate in Missouri and other states.
Are districts getting the message about what they can do to address sexual abuse issues and try to prevent them from developing in the first place? Insurance coverage is one thing. But administrators and training providers agree that training all personnel in a district to learn and know the warning signs of sexual abuse, calling in the police if they suspect it is happening, and being forthright and compassionate in their response is key to preventing future incidents.
If incidents do occur, mitigating the consequences, including possible lawsuits, is paramount. "There are some great training programs out there," but many district leaders still are "ignorant" about what they should do about it, Miller asserts.
Administrators and trainers also acknowledge that even their best efforts are not foolproof. "If you suspect something is happening, report it and let the process take its course," Brewer says. "If you wait for things to develop, you are putting a child and the district at risk."
And according to Kreps, "You're better protecting your district from liability by being proactive than finding out later that you are in violation and it ends up costing you significantly more."
Alan Dessoff is a contributing writer for District Administration.