In our efforts to create a safe education environment for children, it's an unfortunate but often overlooked reality that sexual abuse is a major problem facing students in our school system, both in California and across the nation. So much so, in fact, that it's severely under-reported by students, teachers, and school administrators.
Dr. Carol Shakeshaft, an expert on sexual abuse at Virginia Commonwealth University, says that while incidences of these crimes in religious institutions like the Catholic Church receive extensive coverage from the media, "the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests."
This translates to an enormous challenge not only for school staff, but for parents as well. How do we keep our children safe with such a high incidence of sexual abuse in California's education system? Let's go over some fundamental, common sense tips.
- Be aware of danger signs. Does a teacher spend excessive time behind closed doors with a student or shower them with attention, gifts or special favors? Do they engage in activities together outside of school? While this is not necessarily "red flag" evidence of illegal behavior, it can be suspicious. Consider also that an abuser can be "teacher of the year" with plenty of awards and peer respect.
- Trust your instinct. If you suspect that something's not right in your child's relationship with a teacher, follow up on your instinct and investigate the facts. It's important to listen what your children might say - or not say. Has their behavior changed recently? Are they more prone to emotional outbursts, feelings of confusion, or withdrawal? Are other children talking or spreading rumors? Good, strong communication in a family can help uncover these potential risks.
- Know Your School's Hiring and Auditing Process. Make sure that your child's school conducts through criminal and reference checks as well as an annual audit. While sexual predators in schools are typically unlikely to have a criminal record, it's necessary to review employee backgrounds. In addition, many offenders have been teachers, principals, and coaches who were arrested for sexual misconduct while traveling outside their cities.
- Demand a clear policy. Your school should have a clear policy that spells out in writing the measures taken if allegations of sexual abuse by an employee or even a student against another student surface. Parents should know what kind of information they can access in the event of an incident. Experience shows that if a policy is not in writing, the school probably won't do anything until it's too late.
- Demand that offenders be fired and revoked. If charges of sexual abuse are proven, an offender should be fired. This is in addition to initial reporting requirements for incidents of sexual abuse to law enforcement. An educator's certificate must be revoked in order to prevent them from moving on to a new victim in another city or state.
With these basic guidelines, you can step forward and take action. Arm yourself with knowledge and prevent sexual abuse - a crime that robs boys and girls of their childhood, and an insidious threat to our families and communities.