Congressional investigators have found that federal agencies are not doing enough to track incidents of sexual abuse, and should educate districts and states better on how to handle these cases. The extent of the problem is unclear, but the Government accountability office (GAO) noted a vast amount of media reports of related cases and shared findings from a 2004 Education Department report that estimated 10% of students are victims of sexual abuse by school personnel at some point in their school career.
The reports is a follow up of a 2010 GAP that looked into cases where individuals with a history of sexual misconduct were hired as teachers, support staff, contractors or volunteers. In a few cases the districts passed a potential predator knowingly onto another school district.
One issue the GAO is focusing on is “grooming” which is when a perpetrator gets to know students or their families first to build trust. Technology and social media make this issue more relevant. Knowing the early signs of inappropriate behavior can stop sexual abuse before it happens; only 18 states require school districts to provide sexual abuse or misconduct training.
In the report, the GAO highlighted five cases, including one in North Carolina in which a teacher was sentenced to prison time for indecent liberties following an allegation that the teacher had engaged in inappropriate touching of students. An investigation determined that the teacher had taken female students out to dinner and purchased gifts such as a necklace and camera.
Federal law has established minimum standards for state mandatory reporting laws for the suspected or known abuse of a child, but states define the requirements. Most states require school personnel to report sexual abuse, but some districts have their own policies that can create challenges. Three of states in the study had policies requiring suspected abuse to be reported to school administrators. The report stated that “this can result in a failure to report to proper law enforcement or child protection authority.”
The GAO found that 46 states require a criminal background check on school employees. Some states and employee groups told the GAO they question the accuracy of these checks. Forty two states have professional standards, and 22 include information about boundaries between school personnel and students. Many local school officials told the GAO that despite education regulations that require schools to have procedures in place to protect students they are unsure how to apply them. According to news reports, in January alone there have been teacher sex crime charges in Phoenix, Provo, Utah, and Elizabethtown, KY
The GAO, the investigative arm of Congress, challenged the departments of Education, Health and Human Services and Justice to do more. “Although several federal agencies collect related data, none systematically identify the extent of sexual abuse by school personnel, and efforts to address this data gap are limited,” the report said.
The Education Department responded by saying that they will explore ways to better track the problem. Deborah Delisle of the department said the agency is updating sexual misconduct training and will look into how to collaborate with other agencies.
Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who requested the GAO review and is seeking congressional hearings on the issue, said the issue is often “treated as something that isn’t discussed,” but schools have a legal duty to keep students safe from such abuse and that includes a responsibility to ensure such cases don’t happen.
“We know that it is a very real and serious problem and it’s fairly prevalent throughout the nation’s schools, in different degrees,” said Miller, the minority leader of the House Education and Workforce Committee.