WASHINGTON, D.C. – For decades, federal officials have had the means to track educators who sexually assault students, but haven’t enforced their own laws.
That serious lapse, combined with a hodge-podge of federal, state, and local laws addressing educator sexual misconduct with students, has created a system with gaping holes that allow pedophile educators to abuse students in one district, then quietly resign and continue their behavior in another.
Those are the major themes from a recent federal Government Accountability Office report that explored states’ and districts’ steps to prevent educator sexual abuse of students, their approaches to investigating and reporting allegations, and the federal government’s efforts to address what appears to be a growing problem.
Much of the findings are nothing new to those who have followed the epidemic of educator sexual abuse of students in K-12 schools in recent years. But the report illustrates that most school officials are unaware of available federal resources to combat the problem, or their obligation to report such cases to the federal government as a condition of receiving Title IX funding.
That failure to report is made possible by the U.S. Department of Education’s unwillingness to effectively enforce the Title IX laws, according to the GAO report issued last month.
“It’s very timely because we’re working on legislation right now that addresses a few of the aspects and recommendations in the report,” Terri Miller, founder of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct & Exploitation (SESAME), told EAGnews.
Miller, who has devoted her life to fighting educator sexual misconduct, was among numerous subject experts, state and school officials, law enforcement officers, child protective service workers and others interviewed by the GAO for the 72-page report. Federal investigators also reviewed relevant federal, state, and local laws governing educator sexual abuse against students, surveyed state educational agencies in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and visited numerous school districts in several states.
Their findings underscore legislation that was introduced in both chambers of Congress late last year to require more stringent background checks for school employees, and to prohibit those with certain offenses from working in schools. The House legislation quickly passed by a voice vote, but the companion legislation appears to have stalled in the Senate after politically powerful teachers unions raised issues with how the reforms might impact employment rights.
The bottom line is “although states and school districts are taking some positive steps, current efforts are clearly not enough,” according to the report.
“ … (B)ecause federal efforts and collaboration to date have been limited, states, districts, and schools have worked to address this type of sexual abuse and misconduct with minimal federal guidance on model policies, programs and practices.
“Further, most states are not aware of the federal resources that are currently available.”
Analysis of local prevention
GAO investigators found most states rely heavily on criminal background checks as the primary way of preventing sexual abuse of students by school employees, but the sources and quality of information screened by schools varied widely.
“Forty-six states reported in our survey that they required background checks for applicants seeking employment in a public K-12 school, regardless of whether the position was as a school principal, teacher, or secretary, for example,” according to the report.
The survey showed 36 states use both state and federal sources of criminal data, and 25 states consulted the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification – which assembles data on educators who have lost teaching certificates because of abuse. Three dozen states also require background checks for school contractor employees, and 17 states require school volunteers to submit to criminal checks.
Six states use only state data for background checks, three states use only federal data, and five states don’t require background checks at all.
Law enforcement, school officials and other experts, however, highlighted the fact that the criminal checks only uncover applicants who have been convicted of crimes. Often times, school employees facing allegations are encouraged to resign with a promise from their employer to keep their transgressions private. These deals, known as “passing the trash,” are typically facilitated by teachers union officials.
“Representatives from a risk management company told us few offenders are caught the first time they abuse, and sex offenders often have many victims before they’re caught,” GAO investigators wrote.
Experts like SESAME’s Miller believe a lack of a uniform background check system is a major problem, but also believe schools aren’t doing enough to train employees on identifying and preventing educators who abuse students.
The GAO report shows only “18 states required school district to provide awareness and prevention training on sexual abuse or misconduct by school personnel against students.
“At least 15 of the 18 states required school district superintendents, school administrators, counselors, psychologists, and teachers to attend this training; however, fewer than half of the 18 states required Title IX coordinators, cafeteria and janitorial personnel, and bus drivers to take the training. Ten states required coaches to attend sexual abuse training while eleven states require training for sexual misconduct,” according to the report.
The lack of training goes along with a lack of awareness about the problem, in part because there’s no central agency, in the federal government or elsewhere, which tracks data related to child sex abuse by school employees.
“As long as data doesn’t exist, a problem doesn’t exist in Washington,” Miller said.
Laws and reporting abuse
Virtually every state has laws that require school employees to report suspected child abuse, but educators are often confused about which agency to report to, and which behaviors meet the threshold of abuse, according to the GAO report.
In many cases, school employees report suspected abuse directly to their superiors, rather than law enforcement or child protective services, and those officials often conduct their own investigations and make their own conclusions without contacting police.
In several cases, a delay in reporting suspected abuse to law enforcement has hindered prosecutors.
The fact that several agencies are often involved with investigating suspected abuse can also be a problem, according to the report.
“Because different agencies can be involved with investigating reports of alleged child sexual abuse or misconduct by school personnel for different reasons, each of the agencies’ particular goals may lead to potential interference with another agency’s investigation, according to education, child welfare, and law enforcement officials, and experts we interviewed,” GAO investigators wrote.
“Specifically, conflicting missions can lead to subjecting children to multiple interviews, not sharing reports, and prematurely alerting alleged perpetrators of investigations.”
Beyond local reporting, school officials are also required by law to report abuse of educators against students as a condition of receiving Title IX funding. The Title IX program stems from amendments to the Civil Rights Act that provides funding to ensure public schools prohibit discrimination based on sex, and to provide resources to protect students from sexual abuse in K-12 schools.
The GAO report makes it clear school officials aren’t reporting employee-to-student abuse at all, and the U.S. Department of Education – the agency charged with enforcing Title IX – has done very little to address that problem since the program started in 1972.
“The only data (U.S. Education officials) are currently collecting is data on students who have harassed other students … they don’t ask one question at all about how many students have been sexually harassed by school employees,” Miller said.
“All they have to do is simply include the questions in their civil rights data collection form,” she said. “Why they didn’t include them in the first place … is a big question for the Department of Education.”
Feds drop the ball
According to the GAO report, “The issue of abuse by school personnel crosses several federal agencies’ missions, with no single agency having a clear leading role to coordinate with other agencies to oversee the prevention of and response to such situations.”
The federal agencies involved include the Education department, the Health and Human Services department, and the Department of Justice. The report shows the agencies have worked together in the past to prevent child abuse in general, but have little coordination when it comes to educators abusing students, specifically.
Currently, the Education department provides prevention training to schools that request it through its Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center, which is run by a private corporation called Synergy Enterprises, Inc. through a federal contract.
Training is also conducted by request through the Education department’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students, which held 11 training sessions in nine states in 2012. The Office of Civil Rights within the Education department has also held some presentations on Title IX issues related to student-to-student and personnel-to-student harassment, GAO investigators found.
Literature produced by the Education department dating back to 2001 has provided guidance about sex abuse by school employees.
The problem is, most school officials – and even experts on educator sexual misconduct – are largely unaware the federal resources exist.
Miller said SESAME is listed as a resource on some of the department’s training literature, and members of the group’s board of advisors are also included, but she had never seen the publication before the recent GAO report pointed it out.
“According to our survey of state educational agencies, less than half of the states said they were aware of resources available to them from the federal agencies,” the GAO reports.
“In addition to limited awareness of existing federal resources to address this issue, according to our survey, 29 states said additional guidance and technical assistance from the federal government could be useful to states or school districts to help address sexual abuse or misconduct by school personnel.”
The other major federal flop is that “although several federal agencies collect related data, none collect comprehensive data that would quantify the prevalence of sexual abuse by school personnel,” according to the GAO.
Miller explained that federal Title IX requirements mandate the reporting of employee-to-student sexual abuse, but the Department of Education doesn’t provide a place on its reporting form for that type of offense. The department’s Title IX definitions include educator sexual misconduct by employees against students as an example of reportable abuse, but doesn’t make schools report the information as required by law, Miller said.
“That’s one of our biggest frustrations,” Miller said. “The enforcement of Title IX in K-12 schools is virtually nil.”
Miller conducts regular talks with public school officials and the vast majority don’t understand their reporting obligations under Title IX. Many don’t even know what Title IX is, she said.
“Nobody knows what it is and that shows a great deal of non-compliance,” she said. “This falls back on the lack of enforcement and lack of oversight by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
“They are doling out the federal money to every school in the country and the penalty for not complying is supposed to be to lose your funding, but nobody is complying and nobody is enforcing the law,” she said.
The GAO report issues several recommendations for federal officials to:
– Develop a comprehensive package of material for states, districts, and schools that outlines steps that can be taken to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse by school personnel. For example, this could include compiling, assessing, and enhancing existing guidance, training materials, grant opportunities, and other resources;
– Determine the most cost-effective way to disseminate federal information so that relevant state and local educational agencies, child welfare agencies, and criminal justice entities are aware of and have access to it; and
– Identify mechanisms to better track and analyze the prevalence of child sexual abuse by school personnel through existing federal data collection systems, such as the School Survey on Crime and Safety, the National Child Abuse and Neglect and Data System, and the National Crime Victimization Survey.
The report also calls on federal officials to “clarify and disseminate information on the roles and responsibilities of Title IX coordinators and more clearly emphasize that Title IX also applies to public K-12 schools and to cases involving personnel-to-student sexual abuse and misconduct.”
Miller believes the recommendation to inform school officials of their obligations under Title IX is very telling.
“Title IX has been in effect since 1972,” she said. “And now it’s finally time for K-12 schools to know they fall under Title IX and they’ve been receiving all this funding over the years?”