Think you’d know if your child was being sexually abused by his or her teacher? Think again.
My phone was a buzz. “Did you hear?” “I don’t believe it!” “Thank god my daughter doesn’t go to that elementary school”.
It happened again, another teacher arrested, more children at risk for sexual abuse. It will continue to happen until we as citizens demand state-of-the-art, mandated training for educators, and we as educators realize that knowledge about educator sexual misconduct can help a school community keep its students safe.
A local elementary school teacher was arrested for possession of child pornography, now known as child sexual abuse material (CSAM). This grade 4 teacher, who had access to students and opportunity to exploit children all day, every day, is an online sexual predator. Could it happen in your community? Yes. There are predators lurking in every community.
We need to be armed. Not with guns, but with knowledge and policy. More often than not, people do not want to report their concerns. They do not listen to that gut feeling when they see something odd or off-putting, a teacher spending more time with a particular child, a teacher who likes to close their door, a teacher who jokes inappropriately with students, and the list goes on. We often say “What if I am wrong? I could ruin the person’s career.” Let’s change that to: “If I do report and this person had abused, I could be saving the life of this student.”
What you need to know:
- One out of ten K – 12 students will be a victim of educator sexual misconduct before age 18.
- One child sex offender can have as many as 73 victims in their lifetime.
- Offenders look for access to children and opportunity to exploit them.
These numbers are scary. Sexual abuse and assault is scary. But we cannot prevent what we do not recognize exists.
Let me preface that most teachers are in the profession to make a difference in children’s lives, to teach, to instill the love of learning. We commend them, especially during these trying times of the pandemic. With that said, the threat of educator sexual misconduct has always been there. An adult friend shared with me that she “lost her virginity with her student government advisor.” She is now in her 50’s and never reported this rape to family or authorities.
Charol Shakeshaft, a researcher with whom KidSafe is proud to have worked on our trainings for educators, wrote a blog on identifying educator sexual misconduct. It is a must read for parents and educators alike. We cannot prevent sexual abuse of our children if we do not know the signs.
By S.E.S.A.M.E Board of Advisor member Charol Shakeshaft
SESAME (Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation) works as a voice for the prevention of sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment of students by teachers and other school staff. This national organization increases public awareness, fosters recovery of victims and survivors, and promotes effective policies and legislation.
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 include touching a student, but rather sharing pornography, sexual talk, sexual exhibitionism, or masturbation 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 figure, 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 person 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 identification, refusal, and disclosure skills, adults — not children — are responsible for ensuring that schools are safe places for all students.