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Molestation and Rumors of Molestation: Educators Can Do More to Stop Sexual Abuse in The Schools

by Richard Fossey & Judith Adkison - December 06, 2010

Let’s not kid ourselves--we have child molesters in some of our schools. They are crafty; they are obsessed; and they have a primitive, almost animalistic instinct for choosing student victims who will passively submit to their aggressions. Educators need to cultivate an attitude of vigilance, a bit of forensic horse sense, and a healthy sense of skepticism when they observe an employee’s suspicious behavior with a student.

Of all the calamities that can beset a child, perhaps the most horrific is sexual molestation by a trusted adult, such as a teacher or a coach. The psychic trauma is immense and never wholly heals (Herman, 1992). Sexual abuse leaves a psychologically disfiguring scar that lasts a lifetime.

Sexual Abuse in Schools: The Problem We Cant Quite Solve

No one can say for certain how many children are sexually abused in the schools. Charol Shakeshaft (2004), in her monumental report to the U.S. Department of Education, reviewed several research studies that give some indication about the prevalence of sexual abuse in schools by adults. Dan Wishnietsky, for example, conducted a study of North Carolina high school graduates, in which 13 percent of the respondents reported sexual intercourse with a teacher. A report by the American Association of University Women published in 1993 concluded that almost ten percent of all students in grades 8 to 11 experienced some kind of contact or noncontact sexual misconduct by a school employee.

These studies are informative; nevertheless, we will never know the exact number of students who are sexually abused by school employees. Many victims refuse to report what happened to them, even when they are questioned by school investigators or law enforcement authorities. Moreover, school administrators sometimes engage in cover-ups to avoid negative publicity about sexual abuse. Although school authorities in all 50 states are required to report sexual abuse to child-protection agencies or the police, they often fail to do so (Stuhlmann & Fossey, 2000; Shoop & Firestone, 1988). Shamefully, some school boards enter into confidential settlement agreements with teachers who are accused of child molestation, allowing them to resign quietly and sometimes even giving them good letters of recommendation (Mawdsley & Permuth, 2002; Fossey, 1990). And in some schools, administrators allow a culture of indifference to flourish, turning a blind eye to inappropriate sexual conduct by school employees. In such schools, school employees can molest students for years without ever being reported.

Still--most school administrators do their best to protect students from sexual abuse. They know they are legally obligated to report any sexual abuse they learn about, and most try to abide by child-abuse reporting laws. Unfortunately, some adults get away with molesting students simply because administrators do not know how to detect or investigate sexual abuse and other school employees do not know how to recognize abuse and respond appropriately.  

In extreme cases, sexual abusers hide in plain sight in public schools--often molesting students repeatedly for years before being detected, fired, and prosecuted. For example, in the famous Supreme Court decision of Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District (1998), a teacher repeatedly took a female student off school grounds for sexual encounters while school was in session. And in Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools (1992), another well-known Supreme Court decision, a teacher was accused of taking a high-school girl out of other teachers classrooms for the purpose of engaging in what the Supreme Court delicately described as coercive intercourse in a private office (p. 63). Obviously, in both these cases, teachers were molesting students during school hours without being found out.

Typical Patterns of Child Sexual Abuse in the Schools

We will never eradicate all child molestation. Since the beginning of time, a small percentage of adults have sought ways to gain power over children for the purpose of sexual exploitation. This is a recurring problem, as the Roman Catholic Church, the Boy Scouts of America, and many public school systems can sorrowfully attest. But educators could do a better job of detecting sexual abuse in their schools if they knew what to look for.

First, sexual abuse almost always occurs in isolation--in cars, empty classrooms, private offices, and various secluded locations in a school. School administrators should be concerned if they see an adult employee habitually spending time alone with the same student, and they should make every effort to eliminate all opportunities for adults to be alone with students in secluded places.

Second, sexual abusers typically groom their student victims by engaging them in inappropriate discussions on sexual topics before taking the final step of physical sexual contact. Thus, a school employee who is flirtatious or repeatedly engages students in intimate conversations with sexual overtones may be exhibiting more than poor judgment--he may be a sex offender on the prowl for a new victim.

Third, student victims of sexual abuse are often socially isolated and particularly needy. As Mary Lentz (2003, p. 19) observed, The sexual abuser often focuses on potential victims who are experiencing home problems, come from single-parent homes, are loners with few friends, are compliant, easily controlled, are socially immature, . . . and exhibit low self esteem. Socially isolated children--as abusers well know--are more likely than other children to consent to an abusers advances and to keep silent about the intimate relationships they develop with an abusive adult.

Fourth, as many researchers have observed, sexual abusers in schools often work in extracurricular jobs such as coach, band director, or music teacher (Shakeshaft, 2004; Robbins, 2001; Bithell, 1991). These jobs offer enhanced opportunities for a child abuser to develop intimate relationships with students. It is coaches and band directors, after all, who have opportunities to routinely travel with students to off-campus school activities, to be alone with students in isolated settings like gymnasiums or music practice rooms, and to cultivate a students affection with rewards like selection to the varsity basketball team or special recognition for a students musical or athletic prowess.

Fifth, sexual abuse victims frequently fail to report the abuse they experience and often deny the abuse is taking place when first questioned by authorities. They may even try to protect the abuser. School administrators should not conclude that all is well simply because a sexual abuse victim is uncooperative or even swears that no abuse took place.

School Administrators Should Not Ignore Rumors or Suppress Their Own Suspicions

Often a school administrators first clue that a school employee is molesting a student comes in the form of a rumor, a sly hint, or an anonymous accusation. School administrators may believe they are behaving ethically by refusing to take notice of anonymous allegations against a school employee. After all, few things are more generally despised than rumor-mongering and tale bearing. Nevertheless, as Winston Churchill observed, the terrible thing about rumors is that some of them are true.

Ignoring rumors is the wrong approach to combating child abuse in the schools. Obviously, school administrators should not overreact to rumors or publicize anonymous accusation of wrongdoing. But administrators should not dismiss rumors and anonymous accusations of sexual misconduct as out of hand. These shadowy allegations of wrongdoing should put a school administrator on heightened alert that an adult employee may be secretly exploiting a student.

And school administrators should not suppress their own suspicions when a school employee behaves oddly. When a principal sees a coachs car parked in the school parking lot in the evening hours, the principal should investigate. The coach may be diligently inventorying the football equipment on his own time, but he may also be in a tryst with a student. And the teacher whom the principal overhears in an inappropriate sexual conversation with a student deserves more than a frown and a verbal warning. That teacher should be put on the principals watch list as a possible sexual predator.

Conclusion: Vigilance and a Little Healthy Skepticism Can Help Stop Child Abuse in Schools

Sexual abuse of children is an ugly phenomenon that no one wants to think about. But school leaders and every adult who works in a school must always keep in mind that sexual abuse of students is a constant threat. Educators need to know the typical patterns of sexual abuse--seclusion, grooming, and the social isolation that is typical of many victims. But just as importantly, educators need to cultivate an attitude of vigilance, a bit of forensic horse sense, and a healthy sense of skepticism when they observe an employees suspicious behavior with a student.

Lets not kid ourselves--we have child molesters in some of our schools. They are crafty; they are obsessed; and they have a primitive, almost animalistic instinct for choosing student victims who will passively submit to their aggressions. No one is in a better position to get these despicable individuals out of the schools than the child abusers supervisor and co-workers.


American Association of University Women (1993). Hostile hallways. Washington, DC: AAUW Educational Foundation.

Bithell, S. B. (1991). Educator sexual abuse: A guide for prevention in the schools. Boise, ID: Tudor House Publishing.

Fossey, R. (1990). Confidential settlement agreements between school districts and teachers accused of child abuse: Issues of law and ethics. Education Law Reporter, 163, 1-10.

Franklin v. Gwinnett County Public Schools, 503 U.S. 60 (1992).

Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, 524 U.S. 274 (1998).

Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery: The aftermath of violence--from domestic abuse to political terror. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Lentz, M. A. (2003). Preventing child sexual abuse (2nd ed.). Mahwah, N.J.: Stellar Resources/Paulist Press.

Mawdsley, R. D., & Permuth, S. B (2002). Nondisclosure provisions in school district settlement agreements. Education Law Reporter, 163, 533-540.  

Robbins, D. (2001, April 22). We trust our kids to them every day. Houston Chronicle, p. A1.

Shakeshaft, C. (2004). Educator sexual misconduct: A synthesis of existing literature. Washington, DC: United States Department of Education.

Shoop, R. J., & Firestone, L. M. (1988). Mandatory reporting of child abuse: Do teachers obey the law? Education Law Reporter, 46(3), 1115-1122.

Stuhlmann, J., & Fossey, R. (2000). Child abuse: What teachers in the 90s know, think, and do. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 5(3), 251-266.

Wishnietsky, D. H. (1991). Reported and unreported teacher-student sexual harassment. Journal of Educational Research, 84(3), 164-169.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 06, 2010
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16252, Date Accessed: 10/27/2021 12:47:25 PM

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About the Author
  • Richard Fossey
    University of North Texas
    E-mail Author
    RICHARD FOSSEY is a Professor of Higher Education and Senior Policy Researcher at the Center for the Study of Education Reform at the University of North Texas.
  • Judith Adkison
    University of North Texas
    JUDITH ADKINSON is the Associate Dean for Administration in the College of Education at the University of North Texas.
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