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Professional Opinion

Physical and sexual abuse: A harsh reality facing your school

Districts everywhere can learn a lesson from California
The 21st century is bringing new ways for sexual predators to prey on children. Providing a safe environment for children to learn is paramount, says John Stephens.
The 21st century is bringing new ways for sexual predators to prey on children. Providing a safe environment for children to learn is paramount, says John Stephens.

Physical and sexual abuse in schools, once seen as an isolated local concern, is now a national issue.

A Congressional report estimated that as many as 4.5 million K12 students are subject to sexual misconduct and physical or verbal abuse, with other research concluding that less than 10 percent of abusers are ever caught or identified.

A recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report stated that schools lack a systemic approach to preventing and reporting educator sexual abuse on students, despite nearly one in 10 being subjected to this misconduct.

Sexual abuse exposure became highly publicized as the Catholic Church paid nearly $3 billion to its victims. Penn State University paid $60 million to settle the Jerry Sandusky abuse claims, and Los Angeles USD paid $30 million in settlements involving a single elementary school.

California’s conundrum

Beginning in 2009, California extended the statute for filing a lawsuit for minors from age 18 to age 26 without the need to file a tort claim, with legislation pending to extend this to age 40, which significantly increases a school’s liability exposures.

Insurance Code Section 11583 allows for no tolling of prior statute if the district “pays for counseling” and fails to notify the victim of their right to file a claim. This means district exposures may be indefinite in some cases with limited to no statutory defenses. So, plaintiff attorneys are focused more than ever on pursuing abuse claims, with settlement and defense costs increasing dramatically.

Mandatory reporting laws require public school employees to immediately report suspected physical or sexual abuse, whether it may have occurred on or off campus. Reporting must be made to the local police (not the school police) or child protective services.

Law enforcement and district attorneys are filing criminal actions against district employees who fail to report “reasonably suspicious” sexual abuse incidents under these laws.

A principal was recently convicted for failing to report suspected abuse. Alarmingly, when she cited “lack of facts” for not reporting it, the judge said while she did what she thought was right, it was not objectively reasonable at the time. So there is a lack of tolerance from judges and juries.

No small problem

Since the 2011 Sandusky scandal, the frequency of sexual abuse claims in California has increased well over 50 percent. Settlements and verdicts are escalating at a rapid pace, regularly exceeding $1 million per claim. Many situations involve multiple victims, all of whom file claims, pushing defense and indemnity costs to potentially catastrophic levels.

This is particularly true where districts didn’t employ preventive measures that they reasonably could or should have. Human capital costs also impact time spent throughout litigation, responding to negative media attention, and defending district and individual reputations among public opinion.

Social media further compound the problem, where communication escalates to personal comments, then to sexual flirtation and illegal acts.

In January, a woman who said a former middle school teacher sexually abused her for years confronted the teacher and posted a video of the exchange on YouTube. While that may help create closure, it offers an avenue for victims to confront their abusers and for additional abuse allegations.

When allegations hit the media, claims are often filed well after the abuse allegedly took place. Some call these “me too” or “media-hyped claims,” but the fact is that person of power and influence preyed on and sexually abused a child.

As with most highly visible events, there are post-crisis criticisms. Congressman George Miller recently stated that schools are not doing enough to protect kids and the GAO report stated that schools can do more to prevent sexual abuse claims.

The 21st century is bringing new risks and ways for sexual predators to prey on children. Providing a safe environment for children to learn and prosper is paramount for our future.

John Stephens is senior vice president at, a privately held insurance brokerage/consulting firm.