NEWARK, N.J. – It’s a crime that is difficult and uncomfortable to talk about, but some states are taking steps to solve the growing problem.
EAGnews reported back in July that Texas, Pennsylvania and California are the states where most of the assaults are occurring. To be sure, the vast majority of public school teachers are dedicated and trustworthy in their profession. Nonetheless, the number of perpetrators committing sexual abuse with students is growing.
The Patriot News reported this fall that Pennsylvania officials were on track to field more than 700 complaints against teachers and administrators, more than half which would involve sexual abuse, misconduct or exploitation of students at the hands of school employees.
A federal report from 2009 estimates that 422,000 California public school students would be victims of some form of sexual abuse before graduation, or about 6% of the student population. The list of abuses includes lewd comments, exposure to pornography, peeping in the locker room and sexual touching and grabbing in addition to sexual assault.
In Texas, Terri Miller of Stop Educator Sexual abuse Misconduct and Exploitation (S.E.S.A.M.E.) said 180 teachers had been arrested since January of this year, and that was back in June.
The Associated Press in a seven-month investigation found 2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered or sanctioned from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct.
Terry Abbott, chairman of the Houston-based Drive West Communications, tracks teacher misconduct and abuse cases nationwide. And it’s not just teachers, but all school personnel.
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“All total, we have tracked since the first of January 740 cases nationwide. And it’s cases what we call either accused or convicted of inappropriate relationships with children,” Abbott tells EAGnews.
“So it’s not just sexual abuse, but it’s all in that vein, whether it’s inappropriate contact, inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature with children—texting, sexting, sending inappropriate messages. That sort of thing.”
EAG asked Abbott if he thinks the problem is declining or getting worse.
“It seems to certainly be getting worse” he says. “We’ll have good numbers beyond this year to compare to. But individual states have talked about the numbers they had in the past and have reported their numbers seem to be growing…and so everything points to the number going up.”
One thing that facilitates teacher-on-student-sexual abuse is social media, teachers communicating with students outside the classroom, Abbott says. “About 35 percent of the cases we have tracked this year involved school employees having inappropriate, private electronic message contact with students…we believe a lot of this is being driven by text messaging, social media contact between teachers and students.”
Some states are taking steps to curb the communication between teachers and students using social media. Newark, New Jersey’s school board just this week passed a new policy that directs teachers not to use personal social media accounts to communicate with students. Gov. Chris Christie signed a bill earlier this year requiring school districts to create guidelines.
Under the new policy, public school employees are told to use their district-issued email addresses when communicating with students, parents and engaging in official business. Employees wanting to use social media accounts to communicate with students must create a professional account to do so. They are not to ‘friend’ or ‘follow’ current students with personal social networking accounts.
Missouri Sen. Jane Cunningham sponsored a bill in 2011 to stop inappropriate communication with students using Facebook and other social media. She was highly criticized by teachers for inhibiting their ability to help their students. But Cunningham defended her bill by stating, “This law in no way stops communication with students. In fact, we encourage social-media contact with students. We just require it to be appropriate, meaning it is not hidden from parents or from school personnel.”
The District Administration website quotes NEA Assistant General Counsel Michael Simpson as saying, “…let’s debunk the free speech myth: Many teachers believe they have the absolute First Amendment right to post anything they want on social networking sites…”
DA points out that many teachers have been dismissed because of inappropriate posts or picture on Myspace and Facebook.
Abbott says, “I think we’re seeing a lot of response from school districts around the country who are looking at this seriously, who are improving their polices, taking action. The more educators become aware of this, the more action they’ll take.”
But he says it remains to be seen whether the legislators will follow suit and make any individual changes in state law that they need to. He also states he’s calling for school districts to outright ban teachers from having private text messages and social media contact with students at anytime.
“There’s nothing wrong with having a class Facebook page, for example as long as it does not enable the private electronic message between and teacher and a student,” he says. “That’s where so many of these things are beginning…And it very quickly escalates from inappropriate text messages to a sexual relationship.”
Abbott says parents need to be diligent in watching their children’s activity online. “That will really help,” he noted.