Thursday, February 21, 2008

KELLY CLARK and PAUL MONES

The Oregonian series on sexual abuse in the public schools is as important a piece of journalism as the landmark 2002 Boston Globe series on the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

Those school districts, administrators, teachers and teacher union representatives — who The Oregonian exposed as turning a blind eye to the pain, suffering and exploitation of children and teens — are every bit deserved of the public’s wrath as the bishops and priests who condoned and conspired to cover up the sexual abuse of children by priests. The power exercised by the teachers union in protecting its own is what dioceses have historically done with respect to predatory priests.

The response of our schools to sexual abuse sounds eerily familiar: confidential settlements, clandestine financial deals and abusive teachers moving from district to district. The actions of the schools are perhaps more egregious because state law requires that parents send their children to school and imposes on schools the legal obligation to protect the health, safety and welfare of children delivered into their care. That’s why the law mandates that teachers and administrators report suspicions of child abuse to appropriate authorities. Tragically, our schools have placed the avoidance of scandal and the good name of a teacher over the protection of children.

Though individual teachers and principals who ignore the complaints and obvious signs of abuse are to blame for this sordid situation, real responsibility also lies with the state Teacher Standards and Practices Commission, which is operating under remarkably naive and myopic rules and regulations. The commission that hears the complaints of abuse should not be in the business of giving second chances to teachers who admit to sex-related offenses with children. Teachers who engage in any sexually predatory behavior with children should not have contact with children. It is a no-brainer. The research is clear: Except in the most rare and unusual circumstances, adults who are attracted to, or sexually aroused by minors, do not typically change their behavior.

The commission can’t even keep up with hearing the complaints. To give it the added responsibility of rehabilitating even so-called "good educators" is foolhardy. As attorneys who have spent our careers protecting children, we abhor the executive director’s cavalier pronouncement that the commission makes discipline decisions based upon "gut feelings."

The message from our public educational establishment is clear: When it comes to the matter of sexual abuse, the first priority is not the children but the teachers.

We heartily support The Oregonian’s recommendations for reforming this abysmal situation; however there are two efforts that can be undertaken right now. First, there must be stringent enforcement of the mandatory reporting laws, which require teachers and school officials to report suspicions of abuse. There is no doubt that fellow teachers, administrators and school districts that ignore such complaints or agree to silent deals to allow predatory teachers to go quietly away are endangering children. Those who do not report their suspicions of abuse to lawful civilian authorities should be prosecuted. The other method that has proven especially effective for the Catholic Church is civil litigation. If there is one thing cash-strapped school districts can ill-afford, it is paying money damages for grossly negligent and reckless behavior.

Kelly Clark is a Portland trial and appellate attorney who has represented plaintiffs in litigation against the Catholic Church, the Mormon Church, the Boy Scouts, public schools, and other "institutions of trust." He is a former Oregon legislator. Paul Mones is an attorney specializing in the children’s rights.