Teacher sexual misconduct rampant in American schools, says AP

Monday, October 22, 2007

An Associated Press investigation published Sunday revealed findings of more than 2,500 cases of sexual misconduct by educators in the American educational system over a five year period.

The cases reported in the investigation ranged from the merely strange, with cases involving verbal abuse, to the barbarous, with cases involving molestation and rape.

Investigations suggest that many cases of sexual abuse are never reported, and those that are reported often do not lead to punishment for the offender. The cases do not always include enough evidence, and for this as well as other reasons the schools, courts, state governments, and federal governments cannot be sure that they are keeping sexual deviants out of teaching.

Certain academic studies estimate that only about ten percent of victimized children report sexual abuse of any kind to a person who can take action to help them. When sexual misconduct is reported, teachers, administrators and some parents frequently cannot, either subconsciously or consciously, recognize the warning signs of a crime.

After examining records in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, the AP found that 2,570 educators had their teaching licenses taken away, denied, surrendered voluntarily or restricted from the period of 2001 through 2005, all as a result of sexual misconduct allegations.

Minors were the victims in at least 1,801 of the cases, and more than 80 percent of those minors were students of the accused criminals. More than half of the educators who were disciplined by their state governments were consequently convicted of crimes related to the allegations of misconduct.

The cases that the AP found were those of all types of educators -- teachers, school psychologists, and even principals and superintendents. The accused are often popular with students and parents, and are widely perceived as good teachers. In nearly 90 percent if the cases, the offenders are male. While certain educators were accused of sexual misconduct in school, others were cited for abuse that occurred after hours and did not always involve one of their own students. At least 446 of the cases uncovered by the AP involved educators with multiple victims.

A preponderance of cases involved teachers in public schools since many private schools do not require their teachers to be licensed and most private schools do not allow their disciplinary records to be publicly viewed.

The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), two large teaching unions, each decried sexual abuse while pinpointing the importance of considering educators' rights.

"If there's one incident of sexual misconduct between a teacher and a student that's one too many," Kathy Buzad of the AFT told the Associated Press.

"Students must be protected from sexual predators and abuse, and teachers must be protected from false accusations," said NEA President Reg Weaver in a press release.

However, while the AP found attempts to stop particular offenders, it also discovered a firm resistance towards identifying and preventing abuse. In schools, fellow teachers often ignore the abuse or feel they cannot help. School administrators cut backdoor deals to sidestep lawsuits or bad press. And in state governments and Congress, lawmakers are weary to impose harsher punishments or any national policy in fear of harming an important profession.

For example, in the state of California some of the most sadistic sex abuse is flagged, but state law allows a multitude of offenses to remain confidential in disciplinary records, even when teachers are sentenced to imprisonment and become registered sex offenders.

The dearth of information is evidence of a system of disciplining teachers that, nationwide, is often cloaked in secrecy. It is difficult for states to share necessary information about those accused of misconduct and allows some to find classroom jobs in other states.

An additional problem is that while the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification maintains a listing of educators who've been disciplined for any reason, it only shares this information with other state agencies. Also, many teachers do not appear on the list because they resign before losing their licenses.

"(Schools) might deal with it internally, suspending the person or having the person move on. So their license is never investigated," says Charol Shakeshaft, an expert in educational sexual abuse who leads Virginia Commonwealth University's educational leadership department.

"There is the possibility that one of these people could move to another jurisdiction, most likely another state, and you wouldn't be able to find out their history," says Todd Spitzer, a Californian assemblyman, former prosecutor, and former high school English teacher.

Another disturbing trend is that cases of misconduct seem to be on the rise in many places. According to a New York State Education Department report, the number of "moral misconduct" accusations against educators in New York has doubled in five years. In 2005, 134 cases of “moral misconduct” were reported involving teachers and other school employees, as compared to just 70 cases in 2001. According to an overview of the cases, almost 75 percent of the “moral conduct” cases involved sexual acts or an improper relationship. In all, 485 misconduct cases occurred over the five year period in New York state.

The AP's national analysis shows Texas and California with the most sexual misconduct cases, each with two to three times as many cases as New York. Florida proved about the same as New York.

Mary Green, a parent in Washington County who rallied against a teacher she suspected of misconduct, says the key to stopping the abuse is listening.

“If a child says such-and-such a person, teacher, coach or neighbor is `weird,' the parent should not simply dismiss this comment, but have the child explain why the person is weird,” she said. “Often we simply shush them without finding out why the child feels that way. People tend to think it won't happen to them.”