SEXUAL MISCONDUCT RESOURCE CENTER
According to a 2004 U.S. Department of Education report, an estimated 1 in 10 students will experience school employee sexual misconduct by the time they graduate from high school. While this figure is dated (the survey was conducted in the year 2000), it is the only generalizable data we have to date. On average, a teacher-offender will pass through three different districts before being stopped, and one offender can have as many as 73 victims in his or her lifetime (GAO, 2010).
Sexual misconduct can result in lifelong consequences for students including negative physical, psychological, and academic outcomes. Just one case of sexual misconduct can result in negative effects to school and community climate and millions of dollars in civil damages.
Sexual Misconduct General Info
More than 4.5 million students endure sexual misconduct by employees of their schools, ranging from inappropriate jokes all the way to forced sex, according to a report prepared by Charol Shakeshaft, a Hofstra University professor. Dr. Shakeshaft prepared the report to Congress in compliance with No Child Left Behind legislation requiring analysis of sexual abuse in our public schools. (Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature, US Department of Education, Charol Shakeshaft, 2004.) Sexual abuse is defined by federal legislation as involving an act where one knowingly “causes another person to engage in a sexual act by threatening or placing that other person in fear more…
There are roughly 4,200,000 teachers in the United States. A tiny fraction hurt children; but the hurt is great and enduring. People who sexually abuse children seek out places where they can find their victims – and our schools are one of those places. It is vital that every school employee be trained to spot and
report the early warning signs of sexual misconduct.
What is Sexual Misconduct?
Sexual abuse is defined by federal legislation as involving an act where one knowingly “causes another person to engage in a sexual act by threatening or placing that other person in fear …or engages in a sexual act with another person if that other person is – (a) incapable of appraising the nature of the conduct; or (b) physically incapable of declining participation in, or communicating unwillingness to engage in that sexual act …” (18 U.S.C. Section 2242).
Sexual misconduct “includes behavior by an educator that is directed at a student and intended to sexually arouse or titillate the educator or the child.” Educator is defined as “any person older than 18 who works with or for a school or other educational or learning organization. This service may be paid or unpaid, professional, classified or volunteer” (Shakeshaft, p.1).
Educator sexual misconduct includes the following behaviors when directed toward a student by an adult:
Made sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks.
Showed, gave or left you sexual pictures, photographs, illustrations, messages, or notes.
Wrote sexual messages/graffiti about you on bathroom walls, in locker rooms, etc.
Spread sexual rumors about you.
Said you were gay or a lesbian.
Spied on you as you dressed or showered at school.
Flashed or “mooned” you.
Touched, grabbed, or pinched you in a sexual way.
Intentionally brushed up against you in a sexual way.
Pulled at your clothing in a sexual way.
Pulled off or down your clothing.
Blocked your way or cornered you in a sexual way.
Forced you to kiss him/her.
Forced you to do something sexual, other than kissing.
Understanding the Psychodynamics
To trace the line between sexual misconduct and sexual abuse, it is necessary to understand the psychodynamics of a typical educator sexual misconduct or abuse investigation.
The current target of child sexual abuse is seldom the one to report the abuse. The child may be intimidated, perhaps even physically threatened by the perpetrator, or the child may have a strong bond with the perpetrator who has convinced the child that his/her sexualized behavior is an expression of love. The child may fear the consequences should the sexual behavior be exposed. In some cases, emotional trauma may also trigger the psychological defense mechanism of denial, which blocks the victim’s recognition of the harm he/she has suffered.
Best results are obtained by interviewing the environment of the alleged victim before interviewing the alleged victim. In my experience, many people in the school setting — from classmates to classified staff to colleagues, administrators, and parents – will observe behavior that points toward a pattern of sexual misconduct and/or abuse without recognizing or reporting the behavior. The investigator’s job is to uncover and follow the “bread crumb trail” by piecing together information from these sources. The first “crumbs” usually come from witnesses to minor infractions. These infractions, which I call “boundary violations” fall in the sexual misconduct category.
Identifying the Danger
As Dr. Shakeshaft points out, educators who sexually abuse “belie the stereotype of an abuser as an easily identifiable danger to children” (p.22). If sexually abusive adults looked like monsters, matters would be simplified. In fact, sexual abusers don’t come with fangs. Experts profile a typical male offender as a well-liked, deeply religious, heterosexual family man, who has received accolades and awards for excellence in teaching and/or community service. There is no profile for female offenders.
Initially investigators are following up on rumors, a painstaking process of interviewing adults and students in the environment around the situation to determine what each knows. Rumors are vital. They are the tom-toms of a community, and when investigated, they have a strong track record of reliability. However, the investigator can only follow rumors. They have no credibility on their own, and he can’t build a case out of them, but rumors usually point to credible evidence and reliable witnesses. In fact, it is not at all unusual for a child who was abused in prior years – perhaps now an adult — to break open a case during the interview process.
The investigator must track down every lead given in an interview. Quite often, proof of an abusive incident is uncovered by piecing together information from a number of people who either have been told about it by the victim or who have seen some aspect of it themselves. If every lead is not investigated, the “smoking gun” may be missed and an investigation will come up negative, when in fact abuse has occurred.
This takes skill. The facts may be hard to find unless the investigator understands the thought processes and emotional concerns of all those involved. In addition, investigators must be thoroughly trained in legally sound interview techniques that reveal the truth rather than leading the witness.
In the sexual harassment investigation workshops that I conduct with school administrators, it is not unusual for a participant to burst into tears at the realization that he/she missed an early warning sign of what was later revealed as educator sexual abuse. In hindsight it is all too clear. Therefore, I train school administrators to identify and classify behavior that they witness on campus or that is reported to them by employees. I use a classification system of green, yellow and red flag behaviors.
Green flag behavior is behavior that has no sexual overtones or undertones to it. It can be: joking, friendly comments or teasing, compliments that are not overly personal in nature and are welcome, or offers of assistance. Usually, these behaviors are not cause for suspicion.
Often what distinguishes behavior as “green flag” versus either “yellow” or “red” has a lot to do with demeanor and non-verbal communication. The same words or actions may be unacceptable when said in a tone of voice that is outside the acceptable range or when the speaker directs his/her gaze at certain body parts rather than maintaining eye contact. The context or setting in which the behavior occurs is also a big factor.
Yellow flag behavior can be described as brushing up against another’s boundaries, either physical, emotional and/or social. The observer or recipient of the behavior is left ill at ease and wonders about the person’s intentions.
To yellow flag a behavior indicates that the action may have some sexual aspects to it, but that it does not clearly have such overtones. One could say that the behavior has sexual “undertones” instead. This is the type of behavior which may not be entirely suspicious but which sets off an observer’s sense that something may be amiss.
The person engaging in the behavior may be unaware of its effect on another and may even have a completely innocent intention. Remember, sexual misconduct and abuse is not determined by the perpetrator’s intent but by how it is perceived by the person receiving the attention.
Here are some examples of “yellow flag” behavior:
Offering to mentor an employee or student but insisting that the meeting take place in an isolated location after hours.
Singling someone out for attention or favors on a regular basis.
Frequent effusive compliments directed toward a particular person.
Mixing business meetings with extended conversation about individual interests or issues.
Teasing in a way that references gender or contains sexual innuendo.
Supervisors should follow up on all yellow flags. A warning or even greater intervention may very well be in order regardless of the intent of the person engaging in the behavior.
A red flag behavior is one that has overtly sexual overtones and that is unwanted by or embarrassing to the receiver. Red flag behaviors are those that signal that something is clearly amiss. They must not be ignored or discounted.
A Duty To Protect
School districts have a duty to protect students from sexual harassment and child sexual abuse. Court decisions have found two bases for the duty to protect. These are:
School personnel have a duty to protect students from known or reasonably foreseeable harm occurring during or in connection with school activities; and
School personnel are responsible for properly monitoring and disciplining subordinates such as school teachers over whom they exercise supervisory authority.
In exercising the duty to protect students from educator sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse, school officials have:
A duty to train: providing appropriate training and instruction of all school employees and students with respect to the issues which surround sexual misconduct and sexual abuse. This includes thorough training in how to detect and report such behavior.
A duty to investigate: establishing and implementing appropriate complaint and investigation procedures for employees and students to ensure that each sexual misconduct and/or child sexual abuse complaint receives an immediate, appropriate, adequate and comprehensive response. In addition to the school district investigative team, all school site administrators and classified managers should be thoroughly trained in complaint intake, management and investigation procedures.
A duty to remedy: providing appropriate and adequate remedial steps and follow-through to stop the sexual misconduct and/or child sexual abuse.
A duty to monitor: enabling a school environment free from sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse through continual monitoring and correcting of inappropriate behaviors. This includes establishing a district-level coordinator who received copies of all complaints involving sexual misconduct or sexualized behavior. A regular review of complaints may reveal a pattern of boundary violations that would otherwise remain undetected and uninvestigated.
Fulfilling on these duties entails both ongoing training and development and prompt, professional, consistent action. The best protection from harm includes having clear policies and procedures in place, training all students and employees to recognize and report unwelcome or inappropriate behavior that they experience or observe, and training all classified managers and site administrators in the proper steps to take for the legally fit and educationally sound intake, management, investigation and resolution of sexual harassment and abuse complaints. This includes knowing when to turn the matter over to a better-qualified, impartial investigator.
Important to Know
Sexual misconduct toward students can often be detected. A school employee spending a lot of time alone with a student? … Transporting non-related children to or from school? … Unusually close relationship with the family or guardian of certain students? … If the answer to these and other questions is “Yes,” a pattern of conduct exists that is problematic.
School administrators, teachers and staff want to keep students safe from predators in their midst, but they simply don’t know how to identify the behaviors that indicate sexual misconduct is occurring.This failure can result in great harm to the students and expose the district and the
individual to legal liability.
Education is the Key Only by training every school employee to identify and report the subtle signs of adult sexual misconduct can you begin to properly protect students.