ERIC Identifier: ED436816
Publication Date: 1999-12-00
Author: Goorian, Brad
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Educational Management Eugene OR.
Sexual Misconduct by School Employees. ERIC Digest Number 134.
Sexual misconduct in schools is a problem that has gained increasing
attention, from the headlines to the High Court, in the last decade. Commonly
defined as unwanted and unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature, sexual misconduct
by teachers, administrators, and other employees is a problem of sufficient
magnitude to warrant attention by school boards and school officials.
This Digest defines "sexual misconduct" and offers guidelines that school
boards and administrators can initiate to try to protect their students from
unwanted sexual behavior. Although the focus is on sexual misconduct by school
employees, much of the information also applies to offenses by students toward
WHAT TYPES OF BEHAVIOR CONSTITUTE SEXUAL MISCONDUCT?
law recognizes two types of sexual misconduct, quid pro quo and hostile
environment. Quid pro quo (this for that) occurs when a school employee
explicitly or implicitly grants a student a favor in exchange for sexual
gratification. The employee may, as a condition for a student's participation in
an educational activity or in return for an educational decision, request that
the student submit to unwelcome sexual advances, grant sexual favors, or agree
to engage in other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.
Hostile environment means unwanted and unwelcome verbal or physical contact
of a sexual nature that is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive to
limit a student's ability to participate in or benefit from an educational
program or activity.
Authors Charol Shakeshaft and Audrey Cohan offer a less legalistic definition
of sexual misconduct that focuses on the conduct itself, rather than whether the
conduct is "unwanted or unwelcome." They classify behavior in three levels.
Level I sexual misconduct includes noncontact behavior such as exhibitionism and
showing sexual pictures, as well as contact including fondling, touching,
kissing, and sexual hugging. Level II is noncontact behavior that includes
making sexual comments, taunting, and asking students about sexual activity.
Level III is contact behavior that includes all types of sexual or genital
contact that society readily recognizes as sexual misconduct.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights (OCR) offers
examples of legitimate nonsexual touching: A high school coach hugs a student
who scored a goal; a kindergarten teacher uses a hug to console a child with a
skinned knee. However, a teacher who repeatedly hugs and puts his or her arms
around students under inappropriate circumstances can create a hostile
WHAT IS THE SCOPE OF SEXUAL MISCONDUCT IN THE NATION'S
No national statistics tracking the problem could be located.
Education Week undertook a six-month study from March through August 1998. The
study identified 244 cases of sexual misconduct, ranging from unwanted touching
to "years-long sexual relationships and serial rape" (Caroline Hendrie, December
Seven out of ten suspects were teachers, but principals, janitors, bus
drivers, and librarians were also accused. Authorities ultimately concluded that
only two of the reported cases were fabricated by students.
In a 1993 study by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), 25
percent of females and 10 percent of males in grades 8 through 11 said they had
been sexually harassed in some way by school employees. Of those who said they
had been sexually harassed, only 7 percent reported the incident to a teacher,
and only 23 percent reported the incident to a parent. Thus underreporting may
mask the overall severity of the problem.
HOW CAN SCHOOLS RECOGNIZE SEXUAL MISCONDUCT?
Robrt Shoop (1999), many cases of sexual misconduct take place in private, and
may be denied even by the victims themselves. However, adult abusers frequently
give off warning signs. Shoop advises teachers and administrators to "trust
their intuition" and heighten their scrutiny. If someone's behavior makes them
uncomfortable or is unusual, ask questions, Shoop advises.
One sign may be overly affectionate behavior such as prolonged hugging and
touching. Abusers may also engage in nonprofessional behavior such as telling
sexual jokes and sexual teasing. Shoop reports that such verbal abuse may be a
method of "grooming" victims. Adults who tell a sexual joke without being
reprimanded may move on to touching a student's hair, breast, or buttocks. If
the behavior is not reported, that adult may become emboldened and make sexual
advances that will not be reported.
Abusers may seek to extend their contact with certain students beyond the
school day; abusers have been known to have students over for parties and
movies, take trips with students, and buy them frequent gifts. Alan L Barbee, an
investigator for the Fairfax County (Virginia) schools, reports that abusers are
experts at gaining children's trust, and are often lauded for their dedication
in doing extra work with students and participating in extracurricular
Shoop admonishes teachers and administrators to pay attention and take
rumors, whispers, and oblique complaints, particularly from students, seriously.
Often other students have known of a teacher-student relationship but were
afraid to come forward out of a misguided loyalty to the student. Because
socializing with students may be an appropriate means of establishing rapport,
it is important to have districtwide policies in place that ensure prompt,
professional investigation of complaints and incidents to determine their merit.
HOW CAN SCHOOLS FIGHT SEXUAL MISCONDUCT?
A first step is to
devise a clear sexual-misconduct policy; communicate that policy to all staff,
parents, and students; and strictly enforce it. School boards that do not have
policies can look to the policies of other school districts for examples.
Attorney George S. Cresci recommends that all school districts look to the U.S.
Department of Education's Title IX guidelines. The following suggestions come
from the Department's guidelines and various commentators.
Effective policies clarify the nature of sexual misconduct with simple
age-appropriate examples. They specify grievance procedures that tell students,
parents, and school employees where to file formal and informal complaints. They
also include provisions for adequate, impartial, and timely investigation of
complaints, including the opportunity to present evidence and witnesses.
Effective policies also contain provisions to protect the victim's
confidentiality and ensure no retaliation. Parties should be provided notice of
the outcome of complaints, and the school should take steps to prevent
recurrence of the problem.
The policy and the problem of sexual misconduct should be discussed in
all-school assemblies, orientations for new staff, and meetings with parents.
School personnel should be trained to look for suspicious behavior and required
to report suspected sexual misconduct.
Screening in the employment process is an important step. Many accused
abusers are allowed to avoid criminal charges if they agree to resign quietly
(Hendrie, December 9, 1998). Criminal background checks of applicants are
important, including fingerprint checks, but they may not reveal "mobile
molesters" who move on or strike deals with schools to resign without being
convicted of any crime.
Administrators should take the further step, Shoop says, of asking each
applicant and former employers if the applicant has ever been investigated or
accused of sexual misconduct. The fear that such disclosure will invite
defamation lawsuits may be overblown. More than half the states have laws that
protect public employers when they provide good-faith responses to requests for
information about employees (Hendrie, December 9, 1998).
Policies should also stipulate adequate procedures for investigating
complaints. More than one person should be assigned the responsibility of
receiving and screening complaints, in the event that one of those persons is an
abuser. Every complaint should be taken seriously and be reduced to writing.
Because school officials are not trained investigators, Shakeshaft and Cohan
urge school districts to turn investigation of all charges over to professional
child-abuse investigators or the police.
WHAT CAN SCHOOL DISTRICTS DO WHEN AN EMPLOYEE IS SUSPECTED OF
The school district's sexual-misconduct policy must be
utilized if it is to have any effect. Reporting, grievance, and investigation
procedures must be followed up immediately, in every case. Prompt, effective
action may also shield the school district from legal liability. Under Title IX
law, failure to respond to allegations of sexual misconduct, or failure to
establish policies for doing so, may constitute "deliberate indifference," possibly subjecting the school district to civil damages from individuals or
from the Department of Education.
Investigator Alan Barbee warns school officials to expect the following
reactions, especially if charges are made public. Shocked faculty, parents, and
students may rally around the accused. The accuser may be subjected to
harassment and ridicule. Staff members may be distracted from their routines.
The news media, attorneys, and investigators may contact school officials for
Barbee advises reporting the allegations to designated state officials, which
is required by law in some form in all states, and turning investigations over
to professionals. Shakeshaft and Cohan stress the importance of providing
counseling for the students, who are often marginalized and traumatized. The
authors also implore school district officials to contact their state licensing
boards to try to revoke the teaching licenses of convicted abusers.
Caroline Hendrie relates the story of a California principal who, when faced
with allegations of sexual misconduct by two employees, made a "conscious
decision" not to sweep the situation under the rug. The principal promptly
contacted the police and state authorities, provided counselors for the
students, and kept directly affected students, parents, and staff well informed.
As a result, the "trauma to the students was low," and the principal received
"amazing support from the community."
Sexual misconduct in schools is a problem that can devastate students,
parents, school districts, and entire communities. Acknowledging the problem,
educating for it, and following common-sense policies can go a long way to
ridding our schools of sexual misconduct.
American Association of University Women
Educational Foundation. "Hostile Hallways: The AAUW Survey on Sexual Harassment
in America's Schools." Washington, DC: American Association of University Women,
1993. 31 pages. ED 356 186.
Barbee, Alan L. "My Child Was Abused." The Executive Educator (January 1996):
25-27. EJ 516 066.
Crisci, George S. "When No Means No." The American School Board Journal (June
Hendrie, Caroline. "Cost Is High When Schools Ignore Abuse." Education Week
(December 9, 1998): 1, 14-16. ______________. "'Passing the Trash' by School
Districts Frees Sexual Predators To Hunt Again." Education Week (December 9,
1998): 1, 17-18. ______________. "'Sex with Students: When Employees Cross the
Line." Education Week (December 2, 1998). ______________. "'Zero Tolerance' of
Sex Abuse Proves Elusive." Education Week 18, 16 (December 16, 1998): 1, 12-16.
Sandler, Bernice R. "Handling Sexual Harassment." WEEA Digest (October 1998):
Shakeshaft, Charol, and Audrey Cohan, "Sexual Abuse of Students by School
Personnel." Phi Delta Kappan (March 1995): 512-20. EJ 499 167.
Shoop, Robert J. "See No Evil: Sexual Abuse of Children by Teachers." The
High School Magazine 6, 7 (May/June 1999): 8-12.
Williams, Verna, and Deborah L. Brake. "Sexual Harassment: Let the Punishment
Fit the Crime." WEEA Digest (Oct. 1998): 3-4, 6.
U.S. Department of Education. "Sexual Harassment Guidance: Harassment of
Students by School Employees, Other Students, or Third Parties."
A Product of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, College of
Education, University of Oregon, Eugene, Oregon 97403-5207