By S.E.S.A.M.E Board of Advisor member Charol Shakeshaft
Know the warning signs of educator sexual misconduct
Educators can prevent much of the sexual misconduct in schools if they know how to recognize and respond to suspicious patterns and if administrators enforce an environment of high expectations for behavior.
You’ve seen the headlines and watched stories unfold on TV. A local educator is arrested and charged with sexual contact with a student. Sometimes, the educator is a man; sometimes, a woman. The person charged might be a teacher, an aide, a principal, a coach, the band director, or any other adult in the school.
According to the most recent data from a nationwide survey of 8th- to 11th-grade students asking about incidents of unwanted sexual attention at school, nearly 7%, or about 3.5 million students, report having physical sexual contact from an adult, most commonly a teacher or coach, in their school (Shakeshaft, 2004). These students describe unwanted touching on breasts, buttocks, and genitals; forced kissing and hugging; oral/genital contact; and vaginal and anal intercourse.
Reports of educator misconduct that doesn’t in- clude touching a student, but rather sharing pornography, sexual talk, sexual exhibitionism, or masturba- tion raised the proportion to about 10%, or nearly 4.5 million students (Shakeshaft, 2004).
I coined the phrase educator sexual misconduct at least a decade ago because it brackets a range of inappropriate to criminal sexual behaviors and includes verbal, visual, and physical misconduct. Some of this behavior is criminal, some not. But all of the behaviors are unacceptable when directed by an adult, especially by a school-based authority fi gure, toward a student.
While predators are the adults who abuse, adult bystanders also contribute to an unsafe environment. When I talk with teachers in schools where an abuser has been arrested, I hear admissions that they had suspected something but, because they were not completely sure, did not want to say anything. A common explanation for not reporting questionable behavior is, “If I reported and I was wrong, I would have ruined the life of another teacher.” I have never heard a colleague say, “If I didn’t report and this peron had abused, I’d have ruined the life of a student.”
The number of students abused is high, especially where prevention is spotty or absent. Most educators, parents, and students don’t know the warning signs and patterns of educator abusers. If they did, they’d be more likely to report and therefore prevent harm to children.
It is ironic, if not indeed tragic, that most programs to stop sexual abuse are directed toward children, asking them to do what adults will not — report. While children must learn risky situation identifi - cation, refusal, and disclosure skills, adults — not children — are responsible for ensuring that schools are safe places for all students.