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The Phi Delta Kappan






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Every day parents send their children off to school confident that teachers and administrators will not only teach them but also ensure the safety of their environment. Most of us believe that, whatever the failings of our schools, the people employed in them will not hurt our children. Should we be so trusting? While most professionals in schools can be trusted not to harm children, this is not true of all of them. Newspaper accounts reveal in lurid detail what can happen to children when a sexual offender works in a school.

But few studies of sexual abuse in schools exist. There are many reason why this is the case. Such studies are difficult to undertake, since not all cases of abuse are reported. Moreover, even when cases are reported, many school distritcts are unwilling to make information on their experiences available to researchers. In some instances this reluctance stems from a laudable desire to guard the privacy of those involved; in others it stems from a fear of negative publicity, combined with a wish on the part of school personnel to protect their jobs.

Thus newspaper accounts of sexual abuse by school personnel are among the few sources of information about the issue. Although these accounts can be helpful in understanding community reactions to a given case and in explaining some of the behavior of school employees, they do not always meet the highest standards of investigative reporting. The problem is further complicated by the fact that follow-up articles are rarely printed. We end up knowing very little about what really happens in schools.

The research we report here documents the kinds of sexual abuse children have experienced at the hands of those who are supposed to protect them and the responses of school districts to such incidents. We present the results of a four-year study of 225 cases in which students were sexually abused by teachers or other professional staff members. The data come from interviews with superintendents, school attorneys, parents, and teachers.

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