Oct. 7, 2016 4:28 p.m. ET
“Teacher charged with molesting student.” The headline appalls us, yet it somehow fails to shock. We seem to be seeing this sort of story a lot lately.
In May, the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed to pay $88 million to settle sexual misconduct claims filed on behalf of 30 students, involving two elementary-school teachers. According to the Los Angeles Times, court documents filed by the plaintiffs’ lawyers allege that the district didn’t follow up on warnings from school staff that one teacher was placing children in his lap and later allowed him to continue teaching for six weeks after parents complained that he was kissing students in class. Both teachers pleaded no contest to charges of molestation and are currently serving prison sentences. Speaking about the settlement to The Wall Street Journal, LAUSD acknowledged “some failures” but noted that the district did not accept legal responsibility.
Private schools have been implicated, too. In May, the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team reported on educator sexual misconduct claims affecting more than 200 students in 67 private New England schools over the past 25 years. The Globe found 11 employees who went on to other schools after being accused of sexual misconduct; at least three were accused again.
Do these offenses represent an outbreak of criminal behavior in the nation’s schools—or business as usual? A good place to turn for answers is a home piano teacher named Terri Miller, who is also the nation’s leading advocate for sexually abused schoolchildren. For the past 15 years, Ms. Miller has been the volunteer president of a group called Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation (Sesame). The organization’s annual budget is less than $5,000, and its headquarters is Ms. Miller’s three-bedroom house on the southern edge of Las Vegas.
Ms. Miller is candid when asked how many American children have been sexually abused by teachers and other school employees: She doesn’t know with any certainty.
The best that she—or anyone else—can do is to cite a 2004 study funded by the U.S. Department of Education that surveyed the existing literature at the time. The study analyzed, among other things, polling data that had been collected in 2000 from 2,065 teenagers by the American Association of University Women. Of those surveyed, 8.7% reported “noncontact” sexual misconduct, involving such things as lewd comments or pornographic images. But many students—6.7% of those surveyed—reported more serious misconduct: touching, kissing, grabbing clothing, forcible sexual contact. Overall, 9.6% of the students reported experiencing one or both sorts of unwanted attention from school personnel.
As for the perpetrators, male teachers were 4.5 times more likely to offend. Still, given the gender ratio in school employment, more than 40% of the alleged abusers were female staff. Boys and girls were victimized in roughly equal numbers.
The survey was conducted 16 years ago, however, before the majority of today’s students were even born. More recent research, on narrower aspects of the problem, suggest that teacher sex abuse may be less prevalent. But if the percentages from the more comprehensive 2004 study still hold, the implications are alarming. It would mean that of the 50.4 million children who attend Pre-K–12 public schools in the U.S., some 4.8 million will be subjected at some point in their schooling to sexual misconduct by school personnel.
And there are plenty of urgent questions beyond the basic numbers. Are the guilty teachers inveterate pedophiles, fixated on younger children, or more opportunistic offenders, who may conduct an “affair” with a selected teenager? Are certain populations—say, special education or low-income students—at higher risk? When and where does the abuse happen? What role do social media and phone messaging play? What reporting and enforcement protocols have proven most effective at counteracting abuse?
Protesters march near Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles after two teachers were arrested on lewd conduct charges in February 2012.
The answer to all these questions is the same: No one really knows, and beyond a few researchers and activists like Ms. Miller, no one is trying to find out. As Ms. Miller and her group see it, the official policy response to teacher sex abuse has been uninformed, inequitable and ineffectual.
These criticisms are corroborated by a 2010 report by the Government Accountability Office, which examined 15 cases where inadequate background checks led to the hiring of sexually abusive school personnel. A follow-up report by the GAO in 2014 found that federal agencies were still providing inadequate guidance and assistance to the states.
A patchwork of rules guides the country’s 98,300 public schools and 13,500 school districts. Some districts lay out explicit policies and enforce them diligently. These schools establish and publicize a mandatory reporting chain for claims of misconduct, and their leaders conduct swift, professional investigations. Careful districts train their employees about professional boundaries with students, and they make sure that classrooms and other school sites are well supervised. (Abuse is most likely to occur when teachers exploit private interactions with an isolated student.)
Those are the best school practices. Other districts maintain no policy related to educator sexual abuse. This discrepancy originates in differing state laws: Who is a student? What is abuse? In a number of jurisdictions, such as Arkansas, courts have found that teachers cannot be prosecuted for having sex with their students who are over the age of consent (in this case, 18 years old). In Rhode Island and Massachusetts, the age is 16.
David Finkelhor, who directs the Crimes Against Children Research Center, a program at the University of New Hampshire, said, “If we had a nationally run school system, we would literally be at the Catholic Church-level of allegations and problems. Here, we have different jurisdictions handling it on their own, but no indictment of the whole system.”
As the 2014 GAO report makes clear, no federal law requires states to conduct background checks before hiring or licensing a teacher. A number of states consult only their own criminal bureaus and ignore federal databases. States such as Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee have allowed local districts to set their own rules on teacher screening.
No federal registry lists teachers who have been disciplined or fired over sexual misconduct. The nonprofit National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification maintains a voluntary clearinghouse for states to submit the names of teachers who have been disciplined for abuse and other causes. Ostensibly, this list allows administrators in other states to conduct background checks.
But a February report in USA Today identified more than 9,000 sanctioned teachers missing from the database. States routinely failed to submit accurate records on flagged teachers, or any records at all. More than 200 of these untracked teachers, the paper discovered, had lost their licenses over charges of physical or sexual abuse. As a result of the missing records, other states hired some of them to teach again.
The absence of comprehensive background checks and disclosure laws has attracted sporadic attention on Capitol Hill. In December, Congress passed an education bill with a provision, sponsored by Republican Sen. Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, that bans schools from “passing the trash”—that is, from helping a teacher who has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct against a minor to seek a job in a different school. Sen. Toomey has so far failed to win support for what he calls “a more uniform standard for background checks” for school personnel—an idea that has been hobbling around Congress since 2007. “It’s been a real challenge,” he said.
Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.6 million-member American Federation of Teachers, acknowledges that there can be no tolerance for schools and administrators who ignore or abet abuse. But accused teachers also deserve due process, she said. There are 3.1 million teachers in the country, and a tiny fraction of them are guilty of misconduct. “False accusations can ruin everyone’s lives,” Ms. Weingarten said.
The alternative to addressing educator sexual misconduct through coordinated policy is to leave it to the civil courts. And as with the clergy abuse scandal, that is effectively what is happening. In the past four years, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the state’s largest, has paid out more than $300 million to victims of educator sexual abuse and their lawyers, the Los Angeles Times reported in May.
The per-victim cost of those settlements has multiplied: The $88 million agreement in May represented some $3 million each. “You’d think it’s something that would be priority number one, to make it go away. But every year, I keep having more and more cases,” said attorney David Ring, who said that he is handling more than 50 cases at present and has taken “hundreds and hundreds” of others over the past two decades.
California school districts enjoy some immunity from litigation. They are not liable for a teacher’s crimes; they are liable for failing to act. “If an administrator gets wind of some bad conduct or misconduct, I think in their mind they weigh the cost-benefit: ‘This is going to be a hassle to terminate this tenured employee. So I’m going to wait and hope for the best.’ And that never ends well,” Mr. Ring said.
The Los Angeles Unified School District blames “reckless” and “self-interested” employees for perpetrating the abuse, said general counsel David Holmquist. The district has responded, he said, with new measures such as a sexual investigation team and training programs to identify risks. “We’ve taken as many steps as we can to not allow a repeat occurrence. And there haven’t been any for a number of years,” Mr. Holmquist said.
The first step in addressing the problem would be to comprehend its scope. The 2004 Department of Education study is out of date. It also could be wrong. In February, Dr. Finkelhor published an analysis of child abuse in “youth-serving organizations,” a broad category that includes day-care centers, teams, clubs and camps as well as schools. The study, which ran in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics, found much lower rates of abuse (verbal, physical or sexual) than the earlier study.
The sample included 13,052 children under age 18. Just 0.8% of those surveyed reported some form of lifetime mistreatment from organization staff; 6.4% of those cases involved sexual abuse. Approximately two-thirds of all youth-serving-organization abuse took place in a school, the study found.
The two studies are not directly comparable. The more recent survey, funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, didn’t solicit responses about pornographic images, for one, and the questions that addressed sexual contact only involved force. That emphasis might have missed the “affair” with a teacher that a teenager considered consensual or even romantic.
Dr. Finkelhor’s research suggests that youth-serving organizations tend to be safe places. But he added that, extrapolating from his study, tens of thousands of children would still be suffering sexual abuse from staff at school. “There’s clearly enough teacher abuse, and it is such a violation of the responsibilities that a school and a teacher should have toward their students, that virtually any amount should be treated as a problem that’s worth addressing,” he said.
Among the most knowledgeable and vocal experts on the limitations of the foundational 2004 study is Charol Shakeshaft, a professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University who is on the board of advisers at Sesame. This is because Dr. Shakeshaft wrote the study herself. A prolific researcher across a range of education policy areas, she had intended the 2004 study to be the prelude to a broad original survey of students, but she hasn’t been able to get funding for a follow up.
Over the past decade, she has submitted four unsuccessful grant proposals related to educator sexual misconduct to federal agencies such as the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools and the Office of Safe and Healthy Students (both in the Department of Education) and the Comprehensive School Safety Initiative at the National Institute of Justice. (The Department of Education declined to comment on whether these programs would, or could, conduct research on educator sexual abuse; the Justice Department said that it continues to evaluate grant proposals from Dr. Shakeshaft and Sesame.)
Billie-Jo Grant, a board member at Sesame and a researcher at the education-focused firm Magnolia Consulting, based in Charlottesville, Va., secured a $445,000 grant last fall from the National Institute of Justice to study how five (unnamed) school districts addressed recent instances of sexual misconduct. But the project does not try to determine the overall extent of the problem.
The obstacle isn’t just money. Dr. Grant pointed out that several government programs already poll public-school students about sexual harassment and abuse. But the annual a
nd biannual surveys typically ask only about student-on-student violations. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights surveys students about sexual harassment and investigates school districts for failing to address the problem. “Sexual violence is absolutely a civil rights issue,” said Catherine Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights. But her office’s surveys don't ask who the perpetrator was.
Canvassing students isn’t the only way to document educator sexual misconduct, said Dr. Finkelhor. “The big policy disappointment is we don’t have a good annual count of cases that come to official attention” through, say, routine investigations for teacher licensing, he said. “That should be much easier and less expensive to get. There’s really no excuse for not having it.”
Having failed to win support in Washington, Ms. Miller and Sesame have developed their own database. Its source is a Google news alert that arrives every time a local paper or TV crew reports on criminal sexual abuse charges against a school employee. The tally is haphazard and incomplete. In the absence of a national registry, it is also the most up-to-date information available.
“As long as the data doesn’t exist,” Ms. Miller said, “the problem doesn’t exist.”