As awareness of the prevalence and devastation of child sexual abuse grows, our society has made an uncomfortable realization—abuse happens in public schools, too. Unfortunately, just as pastors, priests, and ministers of religious institutions, as well as Boy Scout leaders and other trusted adults, have grabbed the news headlines for the sexual abuse of children, many public school teachers have been arrested and convicted as well. Understandably, parents, public school administrators and policy-makers have not wanted to face the fact that this reality is an ongoing and chronic problem. But it is.
Over recent years, newspapers have published major investigative studies of the problem of abuse in schools, and the lax or corrupt response of administrators and teachers unions.
As trusted authority figures, school teachers, school counselors and coaches hold privileged positions of immense trust and power. Their influence over young children and teenagers is enormous. Too frequently these trusted adults manipulate this trust and power for their own sick purposes. The grooming process in public school sexual abuse cases is very similar to the process employed by Boy Scout abusers and Catholic priest abusers. The adult gains the confidence and the admiration of the child and then uses his or her position, power and influence to sexually manipulate and abuse the child.
As in all sex abuse cases, public school abuse cases are complex and difficult. There are rarely witnesses to the criminal behavior and it’s often the child’s word against the word of a respected teacher or coach. The community frequently rallies around the trusted teacher or coach. Sometimes, the child or her family are alienated and marginalized. In short, these emotional and psychological consequences are devastating to the child, the family, and the school community at large.
The best antidote to the secrecy surrounding public school sexual abuse is public awareness and preventative measures such as thorough background screening and abuse awareness training for teachers, coaches, parents and children. Children and families need to be educated that the risk of child sexual abuse is not primarily “stranger danger,” but that the risk is often from a trusted adult. Obviously, explaining all this without ruining a child’s ability to trust takes a sophisticated and informed messenger. Public schools, however, should be the first and most central place that our children are safe.
As lawyers for children and adults abused as children, we have frequently found it necessary to bring cases against public schools and teachers. It is not pleasant, and it is not easy. But when it is necessary for a survivor’s healing, then there can be no hesitation. And when that is so, we bring the case with all the energy and passion we have. We have come to believe that such litigation, as with the other institutions mentioned, actually helps protect other children from such abuse at other times and in other places. Schools, in this as in so many other ways, are a critical barometer of the safety of our society for children.