My Turn: The path to preventing teacher sexual abuse

For the Monitor
Published: 5/28/2017 12:10:17 AM

The St. Paul’s School report on teacher sexual misconduct, like several of the other similar reports, does a true service by highlighting the variety of circumstances under which misconduct occurs.

Here are documented episodes of forcible assault, unwanted groping, inappropriate propositions, romantic relations that led to subsequent marriage, as well both homosexual and heterosexual offending, and a female in addition to the usual male monopoly. They all illustrate in great diversity what a terrible breach of responsibility and professional ethics occurs when teachers become sexual with students.

The report is a sign of progress. We can do a much better job at preventing these breaches, once schools become willing to raise the profile of this uncomfortable topic and admit the vulnerability endemic to the teaching environment.

But increased awareness and bringing justice to past offenders and victims is not enough. There are also a number of important measures that schools need to take to reduce their vulnerability in the present.

First, schools need to make absolutely clear that the era of “managing” these offenses is over. No teacher is going to escape from a violation with a quiet resignation and letter of recommendation. From now on, it’s end of career and explain it to the cops. Certainly this firmness will be a deterrent.

Second, schools need rules, training and reminders about all the high-risk situations in schools: students alone in teachers’ residences and cars, away on trips and outings, and in locker rooms and changing areas. Bright red lines are needed both to flag the dangers, and expose those who are being cavalier about them.

Third, schools need to talk openly to students and faculty about the problem and especially about the responsibility of bystanders. As these school exposés all illustrate, other students and faculty were generally aware of suspicious behaviors or patterns of boundary violations, but didn’t speak up. These bystanders need to be empowered and motivated to act.

Fourth, teachers need self-management tools. These offenders aren’t all career predators who took the job to stalk their prey. Some are ordinary teachers dealing with predictable life crises, depressive episodes, failing marriages and unexpected infatuations. Their ability to resist mistakes of judgment can be reinforced by training in the same way that psycho-therapists have traditionally been taught to avoid unprofessional entanglements with their clients.

Teachers need to recognize that sexual thoughts about their teenage students can be one of the challenges that come with the job. They need to be encouraged to review the possible ways in which they could be vulnerable to missteps. And they need to have specific plans for self-protection when they sense potential danger – setting limits on themselves and students, avoiding isolation with a youngster, having someone to talk to, and getting professional help. All this needs to be part of teacher training.

Of course, background and reference checks are an important part of the abuse protection package, as well, to make sure that people with past problems don’t get hired in the first place. But the truth is that only 10 percent of new cases of sexual abuse in general involve someone with a prior record, and in the school environment that rate is probably even lower. So we shouldn’t over-rely on that one approach.

There’s a lot that can be done, and many schools and youth serving organizations are adopting such practices.

But many people are disappointed that now 40 years after starting the conversation about sexual abuse, there is still so much of it that seems undisclosed. Sadly, it’s in the nature of social change that it often has to seep slowly into all the places where change is needed. It is a good sign that the spotlight is now on schools and teachers. A new page in youth protection is being written.

(David Finkelhor is director of the Crimes against Children Research Center and a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire.)

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