Have You Experienced Sexual Assault Or Abuse?
More than 1,200 sexual assault survivors helped since 2023.
More than 1,200 sexual assault survivors helped since 2023.

Sexual Abuse in Schools

Recognize the signs, understand prevention measures, and learn about support resources and legal rights for victims of sexual abuse in k-12 schools across the United States.

Survivor Advocate

Key Takeaways

  • Sexual abuse in K-12 schools can include both physical and non-physical acts involving school employees or other students
  • School sexual abuse happens far too frequently, and a majority of incidents go unreported due to a variety of factors
  • If you or a loved one has experienced sexual abuse in a school setting, you have legal rights and options

What is School Sexual Abuse?

Sexual abuse of K-12 students by school employees and other students is a serious issue that can have long-term impacts to victims.

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that one in ten children experience some form of sexual misconduct by school employees. While this is a shocking number, those who experience harm can get the support they need to heal from the experience.

Beyond focusing on healing, survivors of sexual abuse by a teacher or other school employee has rights and options. It is never to late for a victim of school sexual abuse to speak with a sexual abuse attorney about taking legal action over abuse.

School sexual abuse refers to the sexual abuse of K–12 students by school employees including teachers, teacher aides, principals, office staff, or other employees of the school. There are many different forms of sexual abuse, which can encompass both physical and non-physical actions by the perpetrator.

Common forms of physical sexual abuse that can occur in schools include:

  • Rape or attempted rape
  • Fondling
  • Inappropriate touching
  • Sodomy
  • Penetration with fingers or an object
  • Kissing
  • Sex with an underage student

Non-physical forms of sexual abuse also commonly occur in schools.

Types of non-physical sexual abuse in schools include:

  • Showing a child sexual material
  • Masturbating in front of a child
  • Exposure in front of a child
  • Asking a child to expose or touch themselves
  • Taking sexual videos or photos of a child
  • Making sexual comments to a child

Any type of sexual relationship between a school employee and an underage student can be considered a form of school sexual abuse. School employees have a strict obligation to refrain from any form of sexual activity involving a student, irregardless of their age.

Beyond the school environment, sexual relations between an adult and a minor are always a form of sexual abuse, as minors are not legally able to consent to sexual activity with an adult.

Any minor below the legal age of consent is a child in the eyes of the law. In many states, the age of consent is sixteen. When consensual sexual activity occurs between a school employee and a student who is over the age of consent, it may be considered an instance of sexual misconduct rather than sexual abuse. However, if the student did not consent or was under false pretenses or notions of the relationship, they may still be charged under child sexual abuse laws.

Sexual misconduct is not always an official criminal offense, but it is always a violation of school policy and other ethical regulations that dictate the actions of school employees. The potential for legal action varies by case, but at minimum, school officials can pursue disciplinary action against the employee.

Last Date Modified
June 11, 2024

Recognizing the Signs of School Sexual Abuse

Another reason school sexual abuse goes unreported is because parents and other educators fail to recognize the signs. Knowing the signs of school sexual abuse can help catch abuse early. This can provide a student with the support they need to heal and can stop the abuser from harming other children.

Common signs that school sexual abuse is occurring include physical symptoms like:

  • Unexplained injuries
  • Complaints of genital pain or discomfort
  • Bleeding or discharge from the genitals or anus
  • Pain with urination or bowel movements
  • Unexplained headaches or stomach aches
  • Sexually transmitted infections or pregnancy

School sexual abuse is often accompanied by behavioral changes in the abused child. Behavioral signs of abuse to watch for include:

  • Knowledge of sexual activities inappropriate for the child’s age
  • Regressive behaviors like thumb-sucking or bedwetting
  • Withdrawal or other personality changes
  • Sudden fear or reluctance to attend school
  • Sexual behavior inappropriate for the child’s age

School sexual abuse can take many different forms, and responses to abuse can vary by individual. If your child displays any of the warning signs of sexual abuse or shows other indicators that raise concern, speak with their pediatrician.

Effects of School Sexual Abuse

The sexual abuse of a child is a grave crime that comes with long-term consequences. Childhood sexual abuse has been linked to a wide range of negative consequences, including:

  • Low self-esteem
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty managing emotions
  • Sleep disorders
  • Suicide and suicidal ideation
  • Relationship problems
  • Sexually promiscuous behavior
  • Sexual dysfunction in adulthood
  • Substance use

When sexual abuse is suspected, caregivers should take action promptly. When the abuse stops and the child receives proper support, they are much more likely to heal and have a healthy, normal adolescence and adulthood.

Support from caregivers and adequate counseling can help a child process and heal from sexual abuse. This can drastically reduce the likelihood of a school sexual abuse victim suffering from serious long-term effects.

Who are the Perpetrators of School Sexual Abuse?

Any school employee who engages in sexual activities with a student is guilty of school sexual abuse. The most common perpetrators of school sexual abuse are teachers and coaches. These are the two largest groups of school employees who have the greatest amount of unsupervised time with students.

However, school sexual abuse is perpetrated by many other school employees as well. Individuals who can be guilty of school sexual abuse include:

  • School staff members
  • Principals
  • Administrators
  • Superintendents
  • Guidance counselors
  • School psychiatrists
  • Bus drivers
  • School volunteers
  • Other students

Any adult who has a school-based relationship with a student can be guilty of school sexual abuse. School sexual abuse does not always occur on school property or during school hours.

School sexual abuse occurs within all types of schools – public, private, religious, and charter. Oftentimes, perpetrators of sexual abuse against children are drawn to careers in schools because they have easy access to children.

School Sexual Abuse Statistics

Unfortunately, school sexual abuse is a prevalent and potentially growing issue in public schools across the United States.

Sexual abuse in public schools has not been studied as much as experts and advocates believe it should be. This means that specific school sexual abuse statistics can be hard to find, although we’ve gathered those that are available.

Sexual Abuse in School Statistics Show:

Teacher Sexual Abuse Statistics

While statistics related to school sexual abuse are outdated and restricted, studies analyzing sexual abuse by teachers in schools are even more limited.

  • A 2004 study by the U.S. Department of Education found an estimated 10% of K-12 students will experience sexual misconduct by a school employee by the time they finish high school
  • A Government Accountability Office (GAO) 2010 study found a single teacher sexually abusing students can have up to 73 student victims
  • Studies that aim to identify the frequency of sexual misconduct by educators have produced outcomes ranging from 3.7% to 50.3% — a dramatic disparity which calls for more expert studies
  • A Fox News Digital report found that nearly 350 public educators were arrested for child sex-related crimes in 2023 

Victims of school sexual abuse may not report the incident for various reasons including intimidation, fear of retaliation, fear of repercussions from their parents, and fear of law enforcement. This makes understanding how many students are sexually assaulted by teachers each year very difficult, although there are a few recent studies that show sexual abuse by teachers statistics.

Over the last few years, we have seen k-12 school sexual abuse in the news, including physical sexual abuse by teachers and increasingly digital abuse by other students including creating sexual deepfakes of other students

Why is School Sexual Abuse Underreported?

There are many reasons why victims and bystanders don’t always report school sexual abuse.

Students view school employees as safe, trusted adults. This makes it much easier for a potential abuser to grow close to a child and begin to use grooming techniques. When an existing relationship exists between a student and abuser, the child is less likely to resist when a trusted adult initiates sexual activity.

Younger children may not even recognize that abuse is occurring, while older children may feel scared or confused. They may hesitate to report the abuse because they fear the reactions of their parents and abuser.

Another reason school sexual abuse is underrecognized is that other educators may fail to report information to authorities. School employees are mandatory reporters. They have a legal obligation to report abuse, even when they only suspect it is occurring or has occurred.

Unfortunately, sometimes educators fail to uphold their reporting duties. In some cases, educators fear the consequences of reporting abuse. This is especially true when the abuser is in a position of authority, such as a principal, administrator, or board member.

Educators Who Fail to Report Abuse May Fear That Reporting Could Lead to:

Loss of employment

Difficulty procuring new employment

Damaging the reputation of the school or a colleague

Legal repercussions

Additionally, other employees who are making an accusation of sexual abuse against a colleague fear this could have serious repercussions for an individual’s long-term employability and earning prospects. When abuse is merely suspected, other educators may fear that the consequences of making an unfounded report are too high and fear they could not only face formal repercussions, but social punishment.

This is because perpetrators of school sexual abuse tend to be very good at hiding their actions. They may invest time in grooming a child in order to gain trust and ensure the child doesn’t report the perpetrator’s actions. Alternatively, they may coerce a student into remaining silent by threatening their academic standing or the safety of their loved ones.

Abusers often go to great lengths to build a public image that skillfully masks reality. When colleagues and parents hold a school employee in high esteem, they are less likely to suspect that employee of abuse.

Who Can be Held Responsible for School Sexual Abuse?

The courts can hold the abuser and/or the school responsible when school sexual abuse occurs against a student. Because schools and educators are typically mandatory reporters, this means that if sexual abuse is reported to them, they must report to law enforcement. Unfortunately, this means that even if a student does not want law enforcement involved, they may legally be forced to speak with law enforcement and potentially testify in a court case.

School employees who are found guilty of school sexual abuse can face serious repercussions because of the high standard to which they are held. Perpetrators in school sexual abuse cases betrayed the trust of children, parents, and the community when they abused a child they were responsible for keeping safe.

In addition to the individual abuser, other parties can also be held responsible. These include:

  • The school
  • The school administrators
  • The school district
  • Other educators or employees who failed to report the abuse

Liability can depend on the details of a specific case. For example, if a person brought forward suspicion of abuse, but an administrator failed to act or properly investigate, they might face individual charges. In nearly every case of school sexual abuse, both the abuser and the school district bear the primary responsibility.

Filing a Lawsuit For School Sexual Abuse

Those aware of school sexual abuse occurrences should immediately report them to the police. Parents and other educators should work to ensure that the abused student sees a medical doctor and receives adequate support and counseling to help process the abuse.

Reporting the sexual abuse of a child to the police can lead to criminal charges and sentencing for the abuser. However, criminal court proceedings do not compensate the victim for the damages. When a student is the victim of school sexual abuse, their legal guardian can file a civil lawsuit to gain compensation for the damages.

State and federal laws exist to help regulate liability for school sexual abuse. Under Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972, parents can file a Title IX lawsuit. Title IX holds a school responsible for negligence. A school can be found negligent for hiring an abuser and failing to take adequate action once it discovered the abuse.

In recent years, the statutes of limitations governing the timeframe for legal action against childhood sexual abuse have been changing. Increasingly, adults have come forward to take action over school sexual abuse that occurred during childhood. If you were the victim of school sexual abuse in childhood, it might still be possible to gain compensation for damages related to the abuse you suffered.

Every case is different when an adult takes legal action over childhood school sexual abuse. The first step is to consult with an experienced sexual abuse lawyer. An attorney will advise you on what legal options are available based on the details of your case. Even if years have passed, it’s never too late to seek justice and therapy for victims of childhood school sexual abuse.

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