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Protecting the Teacher's Pet

As more teachers are accused of sexually harassing or molesting students and as reports of misconduc

The heart-breaking stories are on, Web site of SESAME, Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct & Exploitation. Often, the victim is the trusting, innocent teacher's pet and the teacher is well-liked by peers and students alike.

Sadly, such incidents aren't rare and end up draining the victim emotionally, physically and educationally. Researcher Charol Shakeshaft, professor in Foundations Leadership and Policy Studies at Hofstra University, who released the 2004 report, Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature, estimates that 4.5 million students are likely the target of some form of sexual misconduct, ranging from a joke to sexual intercourse, from school employees some time during their school years.

The report was congressionally-mandated under the No Child Left Behind law under the charge of the U.S. Department of Education and Department of Justice. Then Deputy Secretary Eugene Hickok claimed that most schools are safe places, but added "we must all expand our efforts to ensure that children have safe and secure learning communities that engender public confidence."

The report includes data from surveys of students, 24 previous studies and 900 pieces of research. Among the studies used, the American Association of University Women's 2001 report, Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing and Sexual Harassment in School, states that one-third of students fear being sexually harassed in school.

Despite that some experts say the report is somewhat misleading and doesn't mean 4.5 million students nationwide are sexually abused, it has created more understanding of the problem. "If a priest can do this, a teacher could do it," Shakeshaft says.

Sexual harassment in the classroom had just started to be openly discussed in the 1980s, according to expert Robert J. Shoop, education law professor at Kansas State University and author of Sexual Exploitation in Schools: How to Spot It and Stop It. Despite dirty jokes that were once tolerated in business lunch rooms and teacher lounges 20 years ago, experts say the media and music have brought sex into the American psyche 24/7. "I think it's pretty clear that society is much more sexualized than it was 20 years ago," Shoop says. He can't say if sexual misconduct of educators toward students is happening more or it's simply reported more frequently. But he says the latest Shakeshaft report is no surprise given consistent reports claiming the problem is underreported. "There is an incredibly important need for training, not only for administrators, but for teachers," Shoop says. And sexual misconduct not only creates an unsafe environment for children--who often end up slipping in grades, not showing for class, and developing poor self-esteem--but districts are apt to lose millions of dollars in lawsuits.

Laws and Courts

The primary federal legal defense for sexual misconduct in schools is Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. It prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational organization that receives federal funds. In 1992, the Supreme Court in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools ruled that students may seek monetary damages from schools for sexual harassment from school employees. But it didn't provide a clear framework for educators' legal responsibilities to provide safer schools. Then in 1998, the Supreme Court ruling in Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District made it more difficult for students to win monetary damages in staff-to-student sexual harassment cases. To collect money, someone with authority in the district must have actual knowledge of the harassment and the district must have acted indifferent.

Some states have mandatory reporting of sexual abuse on the part of physicians, psychologists and teachers among others. Regarding consensual sex between an adult and youth, each state has a different age limit at which the youth can make an informed choice about sex with an adult; some can be as young as 15 and some as old as 18.

But some states have adopted laws that prohibit sexual contact by any educator or person in a position of trust, including Ohio's Sexual Battery law and Colorado's Sexual Assault by One in a Position of Trust, which protects children 18 and under, according to Shakeshaft's report.

And state teacher certification agencies can recall licenses for sexual impropriety.

Many states also have fingerprinting laws for teachers and other educational professionals, but there is no data on its effectiveness in preventing or detecting sexual abusers, the report states.

In Nevada, a 1997 state law prohibits sexual conduct by any school staff member, teacher or volunteer with children up to age 17. As of last year, 49 teachers had been charged and/or convicted or have cases pending regarding sexual misconduct of 127 victims. The 49 cases include seven teachers who had their licenses revoked, 10 who were terminated from their jobs, 11 who were sentenced to prison, and 20 who received probation. "I believe the law is working," says Terri Miller, president of SESAME, Inc., and training coordinator for Nevada Coalition Against Sexual Violence. "These 49 offenders are not in the classroom."

Double Standard

As any sexual misconduct in schools is intolerable to most educators, there appears to be a double standard when it comes to female teachers taking advantage of younger male students, according to Robert Butterworth, psychologist for International Trauma Associates, based in Los Angeles.

In the mid-1990s, Highline (Wash.) Public Schools' teacher Mary Kay Letourneau was convicted of child rape and served 7  years in prison for having sex with her then 12-year-old student. The couple, now with two children, set a wedding date for this month.

Other stories of teachers taking advantage of students are rampant. A teacher at the Orange Unified School District in California was recently charged with 20 counts of lewd acts on a child under 14 years old, and accused of having sexual contact with at least two 13-year-old boys who were former students.

Most people would say it's despicable. But surf the Internet and you can find a plethora of sites where older male students or men claim that they "wish" they had similar female teachers in their schools when they were growing up. They say that they would not have felt "sexually abused" and would have actually been living out their fantasies.

But the experts say the damage done is anything but a fantasy. Butterworth says research shows that young male students who have been victims of sexual abuse by teachers suffer higher incidents of drug use, their school grades drop and they have a difficult time having personal relationships.

Boys are less prone to think a teacher's attentions and sexual advances are wrong due to societal impressions and are brainwashed into thinking, 'Guys that do that are cool.' "They go through with it even if they are confused, and as they grow up they separate their emotions from the act and then have trouble with intimacy," Butterworth says.

Training for Intolerance

At the very least, formal training, student handbooks and a clear policy that prohibits any tolerance for educator sexual harassment or abuse create more awareness.

Even if an employee is set on taking advantage of students, the abuse starts over a period of weeks, months or even years, Shoop says. And in such cases, teachers and administrators can pick up on red flags. "It's very seldom that an adult wakes up and has sex with a 14-year-old," he says. "There is a grooming process ... and it creates a sexually charged atmosphere, from lewd jokes and constant staring to then touching and fondling."

Little has been done to prevent educator sexual misconduct and no studies describe the effectiveness of prevention programs or legislation, Shakeshaft's report states. But there are practices that can reduce education sexual misconduct.

"We need to be much clearer about boundaries," Shakeshaft says. "Many teachers and administrators say that everybody knows what they're supposed to do but they really don't. They're really clueless.

"Nobody I dealt with can think of a single reason why a child has to go to a teacher's house by themselves to do anything that they can't do in a school situation," she adds.

Miller says while her Nevada coalition doesn't conduct school training, she refers administrators to McGrath Training Systems, Inc., led by Mary Jo McGrath.

McGrath, an attorney who has represented school districts for 25 years, created a training system for teachers and administrators on sexual harassment and Title IX responsibility to protect students and staff members.

In 1989, McGrath created her own program after she saw a "tremendous amount of sexual abuse cases" in the mid-1980s in districts she represented. "It startled me," she recalls. So far, administrators and teachers in up to 8,000 districts nationally and internationally have used her program, Students and parents undergo her training as well.

And an online training program is available for those school employees designated to investigate such complaints. Such investigators are taught to speak separately with all parties involved as well as speak to those close to the situation, such as teachers in classrooms next door or students of the alleged perpetrator, or even the victim's family members, like a cousin. In the Mary Kay Letourneau case, for example, the cousin of the victim knew all the details of the relationship before authorities did, McGrath says.

"We combine the human dynamics with the legal integrity," McGrath says. "You really have to have a quality curriculum and really good trainers to reach people."

Recently, a female principal approached McGrath with tears and anguish. The Midwest principal had undergone the training just days after a student complained about a teacher. "Oh, my goodness," the principal told McGrath. "Everything you said I saw and didn't know what I was seeing and didn't know what I could do about it."

"The whole thing had come to light," McGrath says. "She had a serial molester in her school."

Some teachers and administrators "don't want to get involved, don't want to anger a friend, or they feel really uncomfortable judging someone else's behavior," McGrath says. Others think it's not a serious problem, it's none of their business, or that such incidents are "overblown."

"You've got to reach them--reach their humanity and inspire them," to protect the youngster, she says.

Ten years ago, National Education Association started the bullying and sexual harassment program with a manual, Flirting or Hurting? A Teacher's Guide to Student to Student Sexual Harassment in Schools, co-written by harassment expert Nan Stein, who also wrote Secrets in Public: Sexual Harassment in our Schools. NEA has distributed educational materials and conducted workshops to raise awareness and help prevent sexual harassment in hundreds of schools and communities. NEA has also worked with the U.S. education department to draft comprehensive regulations banning all forms of sexual harassment in schools.

Gaye Barker, program coordinator for NEA's Bullying and Sexual Harassment Prevention/Intervention Program, focuses on developing whole school policies so everyone knows what it is and what the consequences are. "Our whole premise starts with codes of conduct and publicizing them and letting students know who they can report to and keeping the information confidential. Sexual harassment is a form of bullying where the victim is weaker."

Districts first define sexual harassment and then train all staff members, from bus drivers to cafeteria workers to janitors. If the district is outsourcing the bus service, for example, the district can have one person in charge of bus drivers undergo the training and then that person can later train the bus drivers, Barker says.

Administrators are also urged to inform parents of policies. "School administrators are paying a lot more attention to this now," Barker says. "For a long time they were denying it. But now it's publicized so much."

Students also learn myths and inappropriate behavior that can turn into bullying or sexual harassment, says Meredith Monteville, national trainer for the NEA program. Tickling is an example of how it can be appropriate at home with family, but inappropriate if a teacher or other student tickles a student, particularly on certain body parts and if it starts to hurt, she says.

Districts must also create a "telling school" whereby a student can go to a "safe room" to report to an adult certain behavior or comments a teacher, employee or another student made, Monteville says. This should be recorded and kept on file.

Some teachers, however, are resistant because it's one more responsibility they have on a long list of jobs, Barker says. But if every teacher gets involved and learns about the program, less time will be spent on discipline or disturbances.

District Does Good

New legislation in the state of Washington, which was effective last June, requires all school employees who believe a student has been physically abused or sexually harassed or abused by a school employee to report it to the appropriate school administrator. That person then must report it to law enforcement or Child Protective Services if he or she believes misconduct has occurred.

Reports to the administrator must be made within 48 hours. If a report is made in "good faith", the school employee is immune from liability. All school employees statewide are to undergo training regarding reporting obligations when they get hired and then every three years thereafter.

School districts statewide also cannot have contracts with employees that call for suppressing information about sexual misconduct by an employee or expunging information about sexual misconduct from files.

At Highline Public Schools, every employee, including janitors and cafeteria workers, is required to take an online sexual harassment course within 30 days of hire to learn basic guidelines of what is and is not acceptable with other colleagues as well as students, says Catherine Carbone Rogers, Highline spokeswoman. Mandatory training for all staff members also takes place every three years just before a new school year begins, Rogers says.

And all elementary school counselors visit each class every September to encourage students to seek them out for any problem they have at home or school so children can feel safe and have someone in whom to confide, Rogers says.

The district also has informal and formal complaint processes and a full-time investigator for all kinds of disciplinary issues in the schools. An informal complaint is sent to the building principal. If it cannot be resolved on the school level, it will go to the superintendent and be referred to the investigator and others in the school's security department.

A Harassment/Intimidation/Bullying Complaint Form can also be filled out by an employee who suspects a problem. The complainer essentially obligates the "district to investigate the allegations and to take appropriate corrective or disciplinary actions," the form states. The form includes questions such as when and where the incident allegedly occurred, who did what specifically, and what, if any, physical contact was made.

"We don't have a tracking mechanism comparing the numbers of complaints before and after mandatory training," Rogers says. "However, our human resources director says the training has been well received and appreciated by staff, especially non-certified staff who did not receive training on this topic before we instituted the mandatory training several years ago. ... They are more aware of what sexual harassment is and what behavior is off limits."

When the investigation is completed, a staff member files a written report of the complaint and the results. The designee then must tell the accused that either the district intends to take corrective action or the district does not have adequate evidence to conclude misconduct occurred. If a student remains upset, he or she may appeal the decision.

Even in the Orange Unified School District in California, where the teacher was charged with 20 counts of lewd acts on a child under 14 years old, new state law requires interactive training and requires administrators and employees to learn how to handle complaints. And every teacher has to sign the district's policy which lists the requirements in dealing with such incidents. "I believe it does cut down on harassment," says Ed Kissee, assistant superintendent of human resources. "The administrators are on notice. ... The major thing it communicates is, 'Doing nothing is not an option.' That's the number one thing we say."

Falsely Accused

While most cases of teachers convicted of sexually harassing or abusing students are publicized, some teachers are wrongly accused because students want "to get rid of them" or because students find them "different" or "weird," according to Gregory Lawler, attorney for Colorado Education Association and co-author of Guilty Until Proven Innocent: Teachers and Accusations of Abuse. He says no matter what happens in the court room, an accused teacher can be disciplined by the school, through termination, for example. "There is a lot less tolerance," Lawler says. "A lot has to do with changing times and there is a higher expectation with regard to teachers in the classroom--they are held to higher standards all the time."

The increasing litigious society is unnerving administrators so if a teacher is accused of sexual assault, the "knee-jerk reaction" is to let them go without pay before the case is even resolved, he adds.

If a football coach tells an "off-color joke" to players or in a pep rally, should the coach's career be ruined? Lawler says it might be too harsh a punishment. Teachers shouldn't be telling jokes or touching students, but, "everyone makes mistakes," he says.

In one case in Colorado, Lawler is representing a lesbian teacher who is accused of trying to sexually assault a male student, among other accusations. Lawler says fear is behind the accusations. "There's a group of parents who don't want their kids to be taught by a homosexual," he says. The same teacher has parents on her side, saying she's a talented, wonderful teacher, Lawler says.

The school has placed her on paid leave, which inevitably "trashed" her reputation even before anything had been settled, he says.

Not Fool-proof

While policies and training can help most educators understand boundaries, they can't convert the true predators in American education.

"I don't think there is a policy on Earth that will change the behavior of someone who has a propensity to victimize students but if everyone around is aware of the policies, it can be recognized and the person can be caught before it gets to a serious problem," says Rogers, of Highline schools.

McGrath adds that the training might make a difference for educators who are just flirting, getting too cozy with students or giving a pupil a ride around town. "It could wake people up," she says. "But for the people who are abusers, a little training will not defer them."

Butterworth agrees. "A few teachers are always going to see nothing wrong with it and they are going to have sex with young boys," he says. "But the purpose is to get the majority in line."

Angela Pascopella is a features editor.

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