Stop Sexual abuse by school employees before it starts

Sexual abuse of students by school employees is grabbing headlines nationwide, as the media microscope begins to shift its focus from priestly pedophilia to errant educators.

Education Week, one of the nation’s most authoritative publications on educational matters, recently ran a two-part series on the issue, noting that many experts view sexual misconduct by educators not as an “aberration,” but as a “pervasive problem demanding policy makers’ attention.”

Because online background checks are easy to get and relatively inexpensive—prices vary from as low as $15 for a local check to as much as $45 or more for screening federal records—school officials really don’t have any excuses for not doing them, at least not any excuses that are going to play well on the evening news or stand up in the court of public opinion.

Imagine trying to explain to the mother or father of a 13-year-old victim that the few hundred dollars required for comprehensive criminal background checks was too much money for the school system to invest in their child’s safety.

While more and more school systems are adding these checks to the pre-employment process, many of the headline-gathering problems seem to be caused by teachers, bus drivers, coaches, and support staff hired years ago, before the new regulations kicked in.

Dealing with this backlog might not be an issue for smaller school systems, but if you have several thousand employees, the dollars quickly add up.

Once again, however, doing nothing really isn’t an option, not when a quick Google search yields more than 277,000 entries for criminal background providers and articles. If you’re still one of those naive souls hoping the media’s attention on this issue will quickly fade, you might want to check out the S.E.S.A.M.E. (Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct, and Exploitation) web site.

S.E.S.A.M.E. posts survivor stories and works to prevent sexual abuse and harassment of students by teachers and other school staff. S.E.S.A.M.E. estimates that as many as 15 percent of students will be sexually abused during their school careers.

While this form of sexual misconduct isn’t getting as much press, it’s only a matter of time before the issue begins to snowball.

Before school leaders find themselves engulfed in the public school version of the Catholic Church’s “Perfect Storm,” they’d be wise to get out in front of this issue.

There are basically two ways to do this: (1) publicize the process your school or district uses to screen applicants and to protect children from sexual predators, or (2) quickly improve it by getting parents, teachers, and law enforcement officials involved.

Your community is going to want to know what you’re doing to keep offenders from simply moving to another state to recruit new victims in a fresh crop of schools.

School leaders also need to craft careful policies governing online communication between teachers and students. While eMail is a great vehicle to keep parents and students plugged into homework, tutoring assistance, and other school activities, it also can be abused.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) created, which has handled more than 120,000 leads regarding child molestation outside of the family, pornography, child prostitution, online enticement of children, child sex tourism, and a host of other related issues.

NCMEC also offers a free, online NetSmartz Workshop that teaches children about internet safety. With one in five young people reporting they’ve received a sexual solicitation or approach over the internet in a recent survey—even with filters and blocking software in place—we need to do a better job of getting solid information into the hands of young web users.

And don’t let anyone tell you that sex between a needy or vulnerable teenager and an adult authority figure is consensual. It just isn’t, and I’ve been around schools enough to know that someone, somewhere, will make that suggestion. It makes my blood boil, and it should do the same to yours.

Most states have made sexual misconduct a criminal offense that will revoke a teacher’s certification and licensure if he or she is convicted or pleads guilty. However, it’s usually up to school districts to pull the trigger, and many historically have been reluctant to do so, fearing lawsuits and other time-consuming and expensive legal and bureaucratic maneuvers.

If educators are going to keep a few bad apples from soiling their already bruised reputations, however, the longstanding tradition of “passing the trash” from one school system or school to another is going to have to stop.

On the other hand, it is equally unfair to tarnish an educator’s reputation for life based on unsubstantiated rumors. If a student is acting inappropriately, refer him or her to counseling. Many doctors refuse to see patients without a nurse present; educators would be wise to follow suit by always having another staff member or administrator present.

If you suspect foul play, get the police involved immediately (principals aren’t trained investigators, detectives are) and protect both parties’ confidentiality as if your life and your credibility depend on it—for they do. The next victim of trial by media could be you.

Most importantly, use your intranet and your web site to provide safety information, tips, and resources to your employees, as well as to parents, students, and the community.

Rather than spending hours creating new content, link your site to other credible sources, such as the National School Safety Center, Cyber Safe Cities, or NCME.

Many local law enforcement agencies also have an abundance of good content and resources on their web sites. For a sterling example, check out the St. Louis County Police Department’s web site.

Preventing sexual abuse—and the lifelong emotional scars that go with it—and keeping the learning environment safe for our children are critical components of every school leader’s job.

Just as the internet has opened up new vistas of communications, it has also created new tools that may be abused and manipulated by sexual predators. Let’s give our students, parents, and teachers the ammunition they need to fight back.

Nora Carr is senior vice president and director of public relations for Luquire George Andrews Inc., a Charlotte, N.C.-based advertising and public relations firm. A former assistant superintendent for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, she is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications and marketing.

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