How to Stop Predatory Teachers From Entering Our Schools

Sexual abuse by educators is on the rise. There are ways to prevent it.

EIKE SCHROTER/ABC FAMILY/GETTY IMAGES

Illicit teacher and student relationships have always been part of American culture. They’re mythologized in songs like “Hot for Teacher” and “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” and used as Romeo and Juliet-style plot lines on television shows such as Pretty Little Liars and 30 Rock. The trope is so pervasive and titalating that there are 12 million Google results for the phrase “teacher student porn.”

All of this would seem harmless if it were just fiction. The reality is that reports of sexual misconduct by teachers in America is on the rise and we’re not doing much to stop it.

For my new novel, These Violent Delights, a female revenge story that deals with the aftermath of teacher sexual abuse, I researched cases at schools such as Exeter, Marlborough, Choate, and Horace Mann, among others, and talked to child abuse experts. The findings were incredibly disturbing.

It’s estimated that American educators victimize around 15 children each week, according to Terry Abbott, a former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education who tracks teacher sex crimes in the media. Since so many kids choose not to disclose abuse, I would guess the number is much higher.

Charol Shakeshaft, researcher of a 2004 study prepared for the U.S. Department of Education, says, “The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.” Her study indicates that 9.6 percent of students are targets of educator sexual misconduct (including harassment) sometime during their school career.

Organizations like the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing have seen abuse allegations double in less than a decade. One reason for this uptick is the advent of social media. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, 73 percent of youths ages 13 to 17 have a smartphone (15% have basic cellphones), and 71 percent use more than one social networking site.

Teachers who once groomed victims on campus are now able to engage in private communication with students anywhere and at any time.

The New Jersey School Boards Association has an admirable policy banning teachers from adding students on social media without written approval of their principal, but I’d argue that there’s no good reason that a teacher needs to be “friends” with any of their students who are under the age of 18.

Since states are not required to conduct background checks either before hiring or licensing a teacher — and most private schools don’t require any type of certification beyond a bachelor’s degree — schools are essentially playing a game of roulette.

In 2015, under Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania’s leadership, Congress passed, and President Obama signed into law, legislation that bans schools receiving federal funds from “passing the trash” (assisting a teacher who has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct against a minor to find employment at another school). However, his attempt to pass legislation requiring background checks for all school employees, including contractors, failed.

There’s a simple solution for helping keep predatory teachers out of American classrooms: create a federal registry that lists teachers who have been fired or disciplined over sexual misconduct and require background checks for all teachers and staff members.

The National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification currently maintains a database to prevent troubled teachers and criminals from entering our classrooms, but a year-long USA Today Network investigation identified more than nine thousand educators who had been previously disciplined by state officials missing from the database. As a result, some other states hired some of them to teach again.

Schools and families must have frank conversations with kids about teacher sexual misconduct. Young people should know that it’s okay to feel desire and arousal and to be curious and experimental. It’s even normal for kids to develop crushes on their teachers. What’s not normal is for a teacher with sinister motives to capitalize on those feelings.

Survivors of abuse often mention not coming forward sooner (or ever) due to deep shame, confusion, and an unyielding fear of not being believed. If kids don’t feel safe in reporting crimes committed by the very people who are entrusted with their care, then we have failed them twice. Reporting unwanted contact should be as easy and stigma-free and supported as signing up for an extracurricular activity.

And while wrongful accusations are tragic and life altering, they are also unusual. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center says false reports account for between 2 and 8 percent of allegations, but also notes that these rates are frequently inflated because of inconsistent definitions and protocols, and a weak understanding of sexual assault.

Yet it’s the fear of making an accusation without 100 percent proof that keeps most people, including school administrators, silent. We need to tip the balance so that people understand that their silence makes them complicit in the perpetration of sexual crimes. Not taking accusations and reports seriously is morally wrong and comes with a massive financial cost.

Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, has already paid victims and their lawyers $300 million (and counting) since 2012. The fact that we worry more about the damage to a potential abuser’s or rapist’s reputation than we do about a child or teenage victim has dire consequences for all of us and our society.

Imagine if victims were automatically believed and supported throughout the process. Imagine if reporting unwanted sexual attention or abuse was routine and openly discussed. Imagine if we treated this type of abuse as a public health crisis instead of something to be whispered about in quiet corners. Imagine if predatory teachers were unable to move to a new district or state to reoffend again and again.

I hope it’s what you would want for yourself and your own children.

These Violent Delights is available now where books are sold.