Accused of Physical Abuse: A Potential Dilemma for Physical Educators

By Huber, Joseph H. | JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, November-December 1996 | Go to article overview

Accused of Physical Abuse: A Potential Dilemma for Physical Educators


Huber, Joseph H., JOPERD--The Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance


During the past two decades, child sex abuse cases - especially in physical activity and athletic programs within public schools - have attracted a great deal of attention. With passage of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (PL93-247) in 1973, federal regulations were developed mandating each state to develop policies and procedures that required school personnel to report suspected child abuse to the appropriate state child protection agency.

This legislation, coupled with concern by society about the problem of sexual abuse, has led to the effective investigation, reporting, and prosecution of accused sexual abusers. For example, in Fairfax County (VA) Public Schools 111 allegations of sexual misconduct were formally investigated between 1986 and 1994. Fifty-six of the cases were determined to be founded, 31 unfounded, and 21 inconclusive. Twenty-two school system employees were arrested in the eight-year period (Palaestra, Winter 1996).

Professionals who conduct physical activity and athletic programs also need to know and carefully observe the regulations under Title IX (PL92-313) pertaining to gender discrimination. Recent litigation includes a decision held by the U.S. Supreme Court that a female high school student who was subjected to sexual harassment and abuse could file a complaint and seek monetary damages against a male teacher under Title IX for alleged intentional gender-based discrimination (Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 112A, Supreme Court Reporter 1028, 1992).

Gardner, in his book entitled Sex Abuse and Hysteria: Salem Witch Trials Revisited (1991), noted that in more recent years sex abuse allegation cases have become a "growth industry" in the United States - from lawyers to mental health professionals to validators to state prosecutors. Gardner believes sex abuse of children and youth is widespread, and the vast majority of sex abuse allegations of students is likely to be justified.

The focus of this editorial, however, is on false accusations of student sexual abuse. The teacher accused of student sex abuse is placed in a lose-lose situation. When a student claims to have been sexually abused, it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for the teacher to launch an effective defense. More often than not, it is concluded that the student is telling the truth - a student would never lie about a matter as serious as sex abuse!

At the same time, those who falsely accuse a teacher - student, parent, other professional - can report a case of sexual abuse anonymously, and are protected in most states from lawsuits involving slander and libel. Even false accusations can lead to hours of interrogating a teacher, and can destroy a teacher's professional reputation and possibly position, career, and financial future.

The very thing that makes a good teacher - getting close to students, accessibility, empathy, personalizing reinforcement - can cause the teacher to be vulnerable to accusations of sex abuse. …

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