Report faults handling of abuse in schools

The GAO study says states need to do more to prevent sex crimes against children.

STATESMAN WASHINGTON BUREAUFebruary 1, 2014 

Federal, state and local agencies aren’t doing enough to monitor and prevent sexual abuse of children by school employees, resulting in a spotty reporting system that might underestimate the number of children who are sexually abused in schools, according to a new congressional report.

Although 46 states require officials to report child sexual abuse and 43 have penalties for failing to do so, many schools settle reports of allegations or suspicions of abuse within school districts because they don’t fully understand or comply with existing requirements, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

“States have to understand reporting and monitoring is not an option,” said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who requested the study.

Though the extent isn’t clear, state and school districts also differ significantly on how they handle background checks for potential public school employees, awareness and prevention of child sexual abuse, and employee codes of conduct. Some schools interpreted Title IX — a federal education law against sex discrimination — to exclude incidents between children and teachers, the report said.

“We may not know about many cases of child sexual abuse simply because the right channels aren’t being used,” said Shannon Waters Russell, a therapist at Prevent Child Abuse America, an advocacy group. “That means sexual misconduct is essentially covered up.”

Additionally, federal agencies don’t systematically identify the extent of sexual abuse by school employees, according to the GAO.

Schools need to use more resources to prevent such abuse by providing more staff training, said Jim Hmurovich, the president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America. Only 18 states require school districts to provide training on sexual abuse and misconduct, the report says.

Perpetrators often groom victims by offering gifts and kind words, emphasizing how employees can exploit the trusting atmosphere in schools.

“Teachers sometimes spend more time with their students than parents,” said Daphne Young, a former teacher who handled cases of child sexual abuse at Presidio High School in Tucson, Ariz.

The report follows up on a 2010 GAO report that highlighted 15 cases of sexual abuse in schools and a 2004 U.S. Department of Education report that said nearly 10 percent of students have sexual contact with school employees before they graduate.

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