Your Child’s Safety in School

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Your Child’s Safety in School

What You Should Know About Your Child’s Safety In School

If you ask parents what the number one thing is that they expect from their local school for their child, most of them will tell you it is a good education. Maybe they will be more specific and say an education specially tailored to the needs of their child. If you ask them whether they expect their child to come home safely from school each day in at least as good condition as when they left that morning, they will say “Well, of course! That’s a given.” Unfortunately, it isn’t. One of the worst kept secrets in American education is the number of times that children are subjected to harm, either directly caused by school personnel or allowed by such personnel to occur at the hands of other students.

The overwhelming bulk of people who enter the teaching profession do so with the best of motives and perform admirably throughout their careers. But there are exceptions to every rule; and given the sheer number of people in the education profession, it is inevitable that some will be there for the wrong reasons, or indulge their own weaknesses despite better intentions.

A paper written by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights in February 2004[1] attempts to make the case for the fact that the Catholic Church is not the only institution with chronic sexual abuse problems. It cites several studies in support of its proposition, including those involving education.  It refers to a study published in 1991 in the Journal of Educational Research[2], where the author states that 17.7% of males and 82.2% of females reported that they had been sexually harassed by a faculty or staff member at some time during their education prior to graduation from high school. An article written in 2001 and published in the New York Post claimed that a child was sexually abused in New York schools every day.[3]  In a study done in 1994[4], 225 cases of sexual abuse of schoolchildren were analyzed.  The educator had admitted the sexual abuse in every case but, not one of those studied was turned over to the authorities and only 1% of them lost their licenses to teach. 39 percent voluntarily resigned, but did so with favorable employment recommendations.

All too often, school districts “solve” the problem by simply shuffling teachers from one school or school district to another, often without any notice to the receiving school district of the teacher’s prior record.[5]

When one thinks of sexual abuse of schoolchildren, the usual image is of the female being molested by the male teacher or staff member. But boys are victims also.  CBS News reported on October 27, 2011, that Lebanon, Ohio high school teacher Stacy Schuler had been sentenced to four years in prison for her sexual encounters with five students at Mason High School during 2010. Her activities came to light as a consequence of an anonymous tip.  She claimed, unsuccessfully, that the boys had taken advantage of her.

One of the most disturbing features of female teacher/male student encounters is the cynical view of many that the boys are not truly victims when they have sexual encounters with their female teachers. Male observers, in particular, will joke “How come I never had a teacher like that?”  The question whether a boy can be as psychologically devastated by an encounter with his an adult predator as any girl was tragically answered in the case of Brenda Harding, a 30-year-old woman in Canon, Colorado. She had carried on a relationship with a 15-year-old boy, while his babysitter. When the boy’s father discovered it and ordered Harding to stay away from his son, the boy was later found dead of a drug overdose – suspected suicide.[6] And, by the way, the sentence for Ms. Harding? A mere 90 days in jail, plus 10 years probation.

While these two recent examples show that the criminal authorities do occasionally get involved, the cases that slip through the cracks, as noted in the studies cited above, are the overwhelming majority.

So what can you do to prevent or, at the very least, detect these problems in the early stages? Three things that every parent can do are:

  1. Without making your children unduly suspicious of their teachers, aides and other school personnel, make sure they know to report to you immediately any words or actions by any school personnel that makes them uncomfortable. Be sure they know that when these things happen it is not their fault; that they will not get into trouble and that it is a good thing to report anything like this to you.
  2. Don’t ignore rumors of teachers or other school personnel who are acting inappropriately. Rumors are often critical leads to uncovering sexual abuse and harassment. It is remarkable how many times, once a teacher’s behavior is brought to light, the students will say that they had known for years that there was something wrong.
  3. Don’t be afraid to go to the school authorities and, if they will not respond, to the police with any concerns you have. While school authorities have been known to threaten defamation cases in such instances, reporting concerns to proper authorities in good faith is constitutionally protected against libel and slander suits.

The next time somebody asks you what you expect first and foremost from your local school, be sure you know to say “That my child will come home safe and sound every day.”

If your child has been the victim of physical or sexual abuse at school, we can help, and we hope that you will contact us. Please contact our well-practiced Michigan student protection attorneys at Seikaly, Stewart & Bennett for a no-obligation phone call or office appointment.  Call 248-785-0102 or fill out our contact form to arrange your consultation.

[1] Sexual Abuse in Social Context: Catholic Clergy and Other Professionals, February 2004
[2] Daniel Wishnietsky, “Reported and Unreported Teacher-Student Sexual Harassment,” Journal of Ed Research, Vol. W, 1991, pp. 164-69.
[3] Douglas Montero,  “Secret Shame of Our Schools: Sexual Abuse of Students Runs Rampant,”  New York Post, July 30, 2001, p. 1.
[4] Charol Shakeshaft and Audrey Cohan, In loco parentis: Sexual abuse of students in schools, (What administrators should know).  Report to the U.S. Department of Education, Field Initiated Grants
[5] Diana Jean Schemo, “Silently Shifting Teachers in Sex Abuse Cases,” New York Times, June 18, 2002, p. A19.
[6] KDRO Television, KDRO.COM, October 24, 2011.

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