Magazine article District Administration

Battling Sexual Abuse: Proactively Training Employees Is Crucial to a District Strategy

Magazine article District Administration

Battling Sexual Abuse: Proactively Training Employees Is Crucial to a District Strategy

Article excerpt

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FROM COSTLY LAWSUITS on behalf of victims to negative media coverage, such as the one recently played out in the District of Columbia Public Schools when Chancellor Michelle Rhee stated that one teacher was laid off for suspicion of sexual misconduct, districts can face potentially devastating consequences as a result of sexual abuse of their students by district employees. By adopting strong policies that include training all their personnel about what sexual abuse is, how in spot the warning signs, and what to do if they suspect a co-worker is doing something improper, administrators can diminish the impacts and try to prevent future incidents.

"We have an epidemic of educator sexual misconduct in our nation's schools, and nothing is really being done to curtail it. Most of the time, districts would rather stick their heads in the sand than face these issues as they should," declares Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation (SESAME), a Las Vegas-based nonprofit advocacy organization.

"A lot of districts try to cover up or discourage complaints [of sexual abuse or harassment] or don't follow through on them because they make superficial judgments that they are specious complaints," according to Marvin Kreps, the director of curriculum and instruction in the Rhinebeck (N.Y.) Central School District. "That's a very risky strategy."

Rhinebeck administrators were required to take aggressive action, including training all district personnel in what the warning signs of abuse are and how to report them, as the result of a lawsuit filed in 2003 against the district and a high school principal who allegedly sexually harassed several of the school's students. A court approved a consent decree, an agreement between the parties in the case, which required the training and ordered the district to pay $152,500 in compensation to the student victims and to pay their attorney fees as well.

Becoming More Apparent

There is no firm data on the number of sexual abuse incidents in school districts. An estimated 90,000 cases of child sexual abuse were substantiated in the United States in 2003, the latest year for which there is data, according to the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. The data do not identify how many of those cases involved school districts. An Associated Press investigation identified 2,570 cases from 2001 to 2005 in which teachers were punished or removed from the classroom for sexual misconduct, with allegations ranging from fondling to rape. The news service collected the information from state agencies responsible for teacher licensing.

Sexual abuse in schools "is not more prevalent--it's just more apparent," asserts Mary Jo McGrath, an attorney and founder of McGrath Training Systems, which trains many district leaders on how to address sexual abuse issues.

One reason it is more apparent, she says, is that local police agencies are paying more attention to it. "The police used to respond to cases like this with, 'It's he said, she said, and we're not getting into it.' Now they have been better trained to pay attention to these things," McGrath says.

Call the Police

Calling the police is the first action administrators should take when they suspect a district employee of sexually abusing a student, maintains Robyn Wiktorski-Reynolds, advocate program coordinator at Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services, a nonprofit center in Buffalo, N.Y. Police trained in sex crime investigation can do a better job than district leaders themselves or private investigators that districts might hire in collecting evidence as well as protecting the reputations of the districts and their employees if they find no crime occurred, Wiktorski-Reynolds says.

Her organization pushed that message at a conference, "Sexual Abuse and Our Schools: What Every Administrator Should Know About Child Sex Abuse," that it sponsored for the first time for district administrators in the Buffalo area last November. …

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