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Editorial: School-related sex abuse is troubling problem

Sep. 15, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

There are about 3.3 million public school teachers in the United States, and the vast majority are dedicated educators who do what they do for all the right reasons.

But the steady stream of local and national sexual abuse cases involving teachers or school employees show school systems need to be on the alert for the few who are taking advantage of their positions of trust.

Just this summer in West Virginia, police arrested a 36-year-old former Wirt County teacher and coach on charges he sexually abused a 16-year-old student in a relationship that began at school. A few weeks earlier, an East Fairmont High School driver's education teacher was charged with sexually abusing a 17-year-old female student on several occasions.

Last week, state troopers arrested a 59-year-old former Hurricane High teacher's aide on charges of having sex with two students and a former student, one with mental disabilities. The allegations stretch back to the mid-1990s and also involve providing alcohol and marijuana to the victims.

There has not been much comprehensive research about school related sexual abuse, but an Associated Press project in 2007 identified about 2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered or sanctioned between 2001 through 2005 on allegations of sexual misconduct. About half were also convicted of a crime related to the misconduct.

But the report also concluded that most abuse is never reported, and many reports do not receive adequate followup.

That could be the case with the Hurricane High incidents. A retired special education teacher, who helped alert investigators to the most recent incident, said she reported suspicious activities back in the 1990s, but she said she feels her concerns were ignored.

In many ways, the sexual abuse problem in schools is similar those in the military and the Catholic church. You have a large population of potential victims, authority figures with great influence over their lives and a climate that can make it difficult for victims to come forward. Also, much of the reporting and investigation is internal, enabling some schools, churches or the military to ignore the problem or contain it by transferring or dismissing the offender.

That avoids bad publicity, but it does not necessarily solve the problem. The AP project cited several examples of teachers who just moved from state to state, leaving a trail of abuse allegations.

A congressional report done in 2004 estimated that as many as 4.5 million students, out of the 50 million then in American schools, endure some sort of sexual misconduct by an employee of a school between kindergarten and 12th grade. The report also outlined a number of recommendations, ranging from better screening of new hires to more thorough investigation techniques.

A decade later, it is time to take a fresh look at what is being done and what more needs to be done.

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