DENVER — For anyone who watches local news, it’s an inescapable fact: Some teachers and coaches in public schools are sexual predators who prey on kids.
And here’s another fact of life that’s becoming apparent: Principals and teachers who know about sexual abuse sometimes fail to report it.
In late January, for example, a Denver middle school principal was charged with failing to report an allegation of child abuse. The lawyer for Nicole Veltze told the Associated Press his client is the scapegoat in a battle over reporting requirements between Denver public schools and the Denver Police Department.
Sherryll Kraizer, executive director of the Denver-based Safe Child Program, said it is commonplace for principals and teachers to neglect laws that require them to report sexual abuse of children.
“I see it regularly,” Kraizer said. “There are laws against failing to report, but the law is almost never enforced. Almost never.”
Kraizer sees the documentation first-hand as a professional witness for prosecutors and defense lawyers in cases of childhood sexual abuse allegations. She has personally reviewed dozens of cases in which teachers and administrators neglected to contact authorities regarding knowledge of abuse.
“What typically happens is you’ll have a teacher who’s spending a little too much time in a room with one child with the door shut,” Kraizer said. “Another teacher sees it and reports it to the principal. The principal calls the suspected teacher in and says ‘Don’t do that,’ instead of contacting child protective services. Before you know it, the teacher is driving the student home. A whole series of events will unfold, known to other teachers and the principal, and nobody contacts child services before it’s out of control. You see this documented in records after it eventually ends up in court.”
Kraizer said she doesn’t suspect any kind of organized conspiracy in which principals and teachers have conspired to protect abusers. She said it’s subtler than that.
“These are people who work together and socialize,” Kraizer said. “It’s counterintuitive for them to take it outside of the organization. They just want the behavior to stop. The problem is, until it is taken to child services — which gets it outside the realm of interpersonal relationships among adults — the behavior doesn’t change. It usually persists and escalates.”
Associated Press Series
Last month, the Register examined an area where sexual abuse of children has been shown to be rampant: in households where a mother is living with a boyfriend. This month, we turn our attention to sexual abuse in public schools.
Both areas have been largely overlooked in the massive media coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
But cases of teachers being allowed to prey on children are becoming easy to find. Take the case of Randy Sheriff, a former high school basketball coach in Port Townsend, Wash. The Seattle Times reported that Sheriff, a 34-year-old husband and father, had an ongoing sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl on his team.
“Although Port Townsend school officials believed Sheriff was having an intimate relationship with her, they simply nudged him out of town, allowing him to land a coaching job in the Cascade Mountain burg of Cle Elum, where he was ultimately accused of preying on another girl,” the Times reported. “He had to leave that school, too, but continued to coach, this time for girls on elite private teams in the Seattle area.”
A San Jose, Calif., principal was charged with a misdemeanor for not telling authorities about a teacher at her school who was suspected of molesting students. Charges against the principal were dropped because the statute of limitations had run out on the principal’s suspected crime.
“Schools haven’t done enough to educate professional staff about how these situations develop, how to avoid them, and how to identify them when their professional peers are involved,” said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
Finkelhor, a leader in the field of childhood sexual assault research, said it remains unclear — despite surveys by the Department of Education and the Associated Press — how dangerous schools are for kids.
“We still don’t have numbers that put the danger in context, relative to other environments,” Finkelhor said. “Because children spend much of their time in school, that’s where a lot of the sexual abuse is going to take place. We don’t know what would happen to these children, however, in other environments if they weren’t in school.”
As reported in a thorough Associated Press series, sexual abuse in public schools has become rampant throughout the United States.
A relatively small number of news organizations ran the series, which summed up the sexual abuse crisis like this: “Students in America’s schools are groped. They’re raped. They’re pursued, seduced and think they’re in love.”
The investigation found more than 2,500 cases over five years in which educators were punished for actions from “bizarre to sadistic.”
A U.S. Department of Education report, in compliance with the 2002 “No Child Left Behind” act, found that up to 10% of public school children across the country have been sexually abused or harassed by school employees and teachers.
“The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests,” concluded the study’s author, professor Carol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University.
Laud for Church Efforts
Finkelhor said not all sexual abuse in schools involves a calculated predator in pursuit of victims. Often, he said, sexual tensions run high between teenagers and teachers.
“A lot of people have this image of a teacher who starts out with the intent of finding a victim and perpetrating a crime,” Finkelhor said. “Sometimes that’s the case. But in a lot of situations, you get a teacher who falls into it. Sometimes a student has a crush on a teacher, and if the teacher hasn’t been properly trained it can become a situation where the teacher is overwhelmed by the obvious passion coming from a child. It starts innocently and then escalates.”
Finkelhor said he has been impressed by some of the centralized efforts by the Catholic Church and the Catholic school system to address abuse of children.
“The Catholic school system seems to be doing a lot, as a result of the mobilization of dioceses, to confront this issue,” Finkelhor said. “There may be some places where more is being done in the Catholic system than in other institutions.”
Part of the challenge facing public schools, he said, is that each school district is a separate entity that’s locally funded and controlled. He doesn’t believe public school sex abuse is something the U.S. Department of Education or Congress can resolve.
“This isn’t something that can be dealt with at the federal level,” Finkelhor said. “Public schools are a state and local responsibility, and that’s where the action has to occur. The other problem is that schools are so caught up in their No Child Left Behind responsibilities that it has pushed a lot of other stuff off the plate.”
No Child Left Behind established reward and punishment mechanisms that are tied to a school’s test scores. Critics complain that the standards force teachers and administrators to obsess about tests while neglecting other concerns.
Kraizer said the solution to sexual abuse in public schools will be twofold: strict enforcement of mandatory reporting laws, including stiff penalties for those who violate them, and intense training of teachers and administrators in knowing how to recognize and respond to suspicions of sexual abuse.
“When you go to work in a school, you’re handed a three-inch packet of paper and told to read it,” Kraizer said. “You’re told to sign a paper saying you read it. There is no real training, and the three-inch packet doesn’t get the job done. We have a whole field of professionals who do not know how to respond when they suspect a colleague of illegal and inappropriate behavior with students. There’s a natural bent to default to a belief that someone I work with and drink coffee with isn’t really doing this.”
If properly trained and threatened with penalties of law, Kraizer said, the natural tendency toward denial may be overcome. If that happens, she said, the permissive environment would become a relic of the past.
Kraizer said, “Mostly, we need to enforce the law.”
Wayne Laugesen is based
in Boulder, Colorado.