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In every school district, an abuser?

In every school district, an abuser?
By Associated Press
Published October 21, 2007

A teacher molestation survey finds a troubling frequency and a hesitancy to pursue cases.

 A young teacher in Iowa sheepishly admits that he fondled a fifth-grader’s breast. But he doesn’t lose his teaching license until one persistent victim and her family go public – 40 years after the first accusation.

A middle school teacher in Pennsylvania targets a young girl in his class and uses the guise of love to abuse her sexually.

A teacher in Michigan, who had already lost his license in another state, goes to prison after he films himself molesting a boy.

These are only a few instances of a widespread problem in American schools: sexual misconduct by the teachers who are supposed to be nurturing the nation’s children.

Students in America’s schools are groped. They’re raped. They’re pursued and seduced, and they think they’re in love.

An Associated Press investigation found more than 2,500 cases over five years in which educators were punished for actions from bizarre to sadistic.

There are 3-million public school teachers nationwide, most devoted to their work. Yet the number of abusive educators speaks to a much larger problem in a system that is stacked against victims.

Most of the abuse never gets reported. Those cases reported often end with no action. Cases investigated sometimes can’t be proven, and many abusers have several victims.

And no one – not the schools, not the courts, not the state or federal governments – has found a surefire way to keep molesters out of classrooms.

Seven-month review

Those are the findings after disciplinary records in all 50 states and the District of Columbia were reviewed. The result is a national look at the scope of sex offenses by educators.

The seven-month investigation found 2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, voluntarily surrendered or limited from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Young people were the victims in at least 1,801 of the cases, and more than 80 percent of those were students. More than half of the educators who were punished by their states also were convicted of crimes related to the misconduct.

Beyond the horror of individual crimes, the larger shame is that the institutions governing education have only sporadically addressed a problem that’s been apparent for years.

"From my own experience – this could get me in trouble – I think every single school district in the nation has at least one perpetrator. At least one," says Mary Jo McGrath, a California lawyer who has spent 30 years investigating misconduct in schools. "It doesn’t matter if it’s urban or rural or suburban."

Most abusers male

The cases uncovered were committed by everyday educators: teachers, school psychologists, principals and superintendents. They’re often popular and recognized for excellence and, in nearly nine out of 10 cases, they’re male. While some were accused of abusing students in school, others were cited for sexual misconduct after hours that didn’t necessarily involve a kid from their classes.

The overwhelming majority of cases involved public school teachers, since many private schools don’t require a teaching license. Even when they do, their disciplinary actions are not a matter of public record.

Two major teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, denounced sex abuse while emphasizing the need to consider educators’ rights.

Kathy Buzad of the AFT said that "if there’s one incident of sexual misconduct between a teacher and a student that’s one too many."

In practice, less vigilance was found.

Efforts to stop individual offenders are made, but overall, resistance toward recognizing and fighting abuse is deeply entrenched. It starts in school hallways, where fellow teachers look away or feel powerless to help. School administrators make behind-the-scenes deals to avoid lawsuits and other trouble. And in state capitals and Congress, lawmakers shy from tough state punishments or any cohesive national policy for fear of disparaging a vital profession.

"It’s reported as if this is some deviant who crawled into the school district – ‘and now that they’re gone, everything’s okay,’" says Robert Shoop, a professor of educational administration at Kansas State University who wrote a book to help school districts deal with sexual misconduct. "But it’s much more prevalent than people would think."

Few are caught

He and others who track the problem reiterated one point repeatedly: Very few abusers get caught.

They point to academic studies estimating that only one in 10 victimized children report sexual abuse of any kind to someone who can do something about it. When it is reported, teachers, administrators and some parents frequently don’t – or won’t – recognize the signs that a crime is taking place.

There have been fitful steps toward catching errant teachers.

More states now require background checks on teachers, fingerprinting and mandatory reporting of abuse, though there is still a lack of coordination among districts and states.

U.S. Supreme Court rulings in the last 20 years on civil rights and sex discrimination have opened schools up to potentially huge financial punishments for abuses, driving some schools to act.

And the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification keeps a list of educators who have been punished for any reason, but only shares the names among state agencies.

Another problem: Because teachers are often allowed to resign without losing their credentials, many never show up on the list.

How story was reported

The reporting for this story began in March, when reporters asked state education officials for records of disciplinary actions taken against teacher licenses from 2001 through 2005. To obtain the records, most of the reporters had to file formal requests, some repeatedly. In the end, all but one provided most of the requested information.

Maine has a law that keeps offending teachers’ names secret, making it the only state that refused to disclose cases of sexual misconduct. The three cases found in Maine were made public in news reports.

Once the disciplinary records were collected, secondary sources on cases of alleged sexual misconduct included court, police and prison records and state sex offender registries, as well as news accounts.

The findings were then put into a database.

If the state acted against an educator following an accusation of sexual misconduct, that person was included in the count. All of the educators were disciplined for doing something sexual, inappropriate and unprofessional. Many were charged criminally, and 1,390 cases resulted in a conviction.

A very small minority of cases, including a couple of dozen involving prostitution, had no direct connection to either schools or to children. But they did involve sexual misbehavior and since education officials punished the teachers for those actions, they made it into the count.

In some cases, the allegations didn’t result in criminal prosecution, but the states acted, most often in the form of revocation, suspension or denial of a state teaching license.