Sexual Abuse in schools

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School sexual abuse of K–12 students by school employees is a serious, ongoing issue that is severely underreported. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that one in ten children experience some form of sexual misconduct by school employees. It is never too late for a victim of school sexual abuse to speak with a sexual abuse attorney about taking legal action over abuse.

What is school sexual abuse?

School sexual abuse refers to the sexual abuse of K–12 students by school employees. There are many different forms of sexual abuse, both physical and non-physical.

Common forms of physical sexual abuse that 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 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 is a form of school sexual abuse. School employees have a strict obligation to refrain from any form of sexual activity involving a student. 

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. 

Sexual misconduct is not always a criminal offense, but it is 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. 

How common is school
sexual abuse?

School sexual abuse is very common. Statistics show that the sexual abuse of K–12 students perpetrated by school employees occurs at an alarming rate. Victims of school sexual abuse may not report their experiences for various reasons, which means that the true rate of occurrence is likely much higher than statistics suggest.

Reports from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) paint a grim picture of the state of sexual abuse in schools. One report found that schools routinely hire individuals, including teachers, with a history of sexual misconduct on record

The GAO estimates that a single teacher sexually abusing students can have up to 73 student victims. 

From  2017 to 2018, there were 14,938 incidents of reported rape or attempted rape in public schools alone. For the same time period, there were another 14,152 reports of sexual assault other than rape.  

In recent years, efforts to study the phenomenon of school sexual abuse have increased. Researchers hope to determine a definitive rate of occurrence, but this has proven difficult to achieve. 

Studies that aim to identify the frequency of sexual misconduct by educators have produced outcomes ranging from 3.7% to 50.3%.

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. 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

Making an accusation of sexual abuse against a colleague can 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 to risk incurring. 

Furthermore, 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 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.

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. 

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. 

School sexual abuse prevention

School sexual abuse prevention should be a priority for educators and school districts. 

Steps that school districts can take to help prevent school sexual abuse and properly handle cases when they occur include: 

  • Implementing strong sexual harassment policies
  • Providing training on recognizing signs of sexual harassment and abuse
  • Training staff on mandatory reporting requirements
  • Offering a clear and easy reporting process
  • Enforcing strict background checks and hiring procedures
  • Completing thorough investigations into any reports of abuse 
  • Fostering a culture that encourages speaking up

School districts should have detailed detailed sexual misconduct policies in place to help decrease the occurrence of school sexual abuse and ensure incidents are handled correctly. With prompt, strong responses, abusers can be identified and removed before they inflict further harm. 

Parents can also help by knowing the signs of school sexual abuse and educating children in an age-appropriate manner. Follow guidelines on how to speak to children to help protect them from the threat of abuse. Having age-appropriate conversations with children can help them recognize when an abuser is behaving in a way that should be reported to parents or another safe adult. 

Who can be held responsible for school sexual abuse?

The courts can hold the abuser and the school responsible when school sexual abuse occurs. 

School employees who are found guilty of school sexual abuse 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.

Suing over 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 must 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.