Based on a case study of K-12 school employees’ sexual misconduct in the United States, 10% of students in kindergarten through twelfth grade will experience sexual misconduct by a school employee. This is the staggering reality of sexual abuse in schools and has been an ongoing reality for decades.

What is school sexual abuse?

There are various definitions for school sexual abuse; however, for studies, researchers generally describe school sexual abuse as any time a K-12 school employee sexually abuses a child, either through contact or non-contact, while caring for the child in a school setting.

Contact sexual abuse includes:

  • Rape
  • Sodomy
  • Penetration with fingers
  • Having sex with an underage student
  • Fondling
  • Inappropriate touching (either clothed or not clothed)
  • Kissing
  • Forcing a child to take part in any sexual activity
  • Having a sexual relationship with a student
  • Having sexual intercourse with a student

Non-contact sexual abuse includes:

  • Exposing a child to sexual activity
  • Exposing oneself to a child
  • Masturbating in front of a child
  • Forcing a child to masturbate
  • Taking sexual videos or photographs of a child
  • Harassing a child
  • Trafficking a child

Sexual abuse includes sexual activities with the child that would be considered a crime under the law. Sexual misconduct is a broader term and includes sexual abuse as well as acts that are not criminal but may violate ethical codes. For example, while sexual contact with a student over the age of 16, which is the age of consent in many states, is not illegal, it is prohibited under school policy. Many studies also include “sexual harassment” in the larger category of school sexual abuse.

Who are the perpetrators?

School sex abuse perpetrators can be any school employee that commits a sexual act toward a child. These include:

  • Teachers
  • Coaches
  • Staff members
  • Volunteers
  • School Teachers
  • School Administrators
  • School Psychologists
  • Principals
  • Superintendents
  • Guidance counselors
  • Bus Drivers
  • Other school officials
  • Other students

Contrary to common belief, school employees are usually popular members of the school community and often recognized for their talents. With this power dynamic existing in all school environments, sexual abuse of students can happen in public schools, state schools, religious schools, independent schools, private schools, private boarding schools, secondary schools, or on any college campus. Such incidents of student abuse can be a traumatic experience for young people, family members, and their their families as a whole, with long-term negative effects on the child.

School Sex Abuse Statistics: How common is school sexual abuse?

The Education Department reported that sexual violence at K-12 schools increased between the 2015-2016 school year to the 2017-2018 school year by more than 50%. In 2015-2016, there were around 9,600 reports, while in 2017-2018, there were approximately 15,000 reports. In the Initiative to Combat Sexual Assault in K-12 Public Schools report, then-Secretary Betsy DeVos stated, “We hear all too often about innocent children being sexually assaulted by an adult at school. That should never happen. No parent should have to think twice about their child’s safety while on school grounds.”

In that same report, they announced that the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) received nearly fifteen times more K-12 sexual harassment complaints in 2019 than in 2009. These numbers show the increase in the number of reports; however, that does not indicate an increase in the amount of harassment. Experts believe that many incidents go unreported, which means that the statistics might not truly show the amount of sexual abuse in school.

In 2000, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) conducted a survey of 2,064 students in 8th through 11th grade and found the following statistics:

  • 81% of students experienced sexual harassment in school
  • 83% of female students have been sexually harassed
  • 78% of males have been sexually harassed
  • 38% of the students surveyed were harassed by school employees or teachers

These statistics show the stark reality that school abuse and harassment are widespread in the school system. School sex abuse can happen to an individual of any race, culture, or demographic and in any type of school setting. However, research has shown that low-income female high-school students are most likely to experience sexual misconduct at the hands of a school employee. Further, perpetrators often target victims who are picked on, have an unstable home life, have special needs, or appear needy, as they view them as vulnerable children who are easier to exploit.

Who is to blame for school sexual abuse?

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Besides the abusers themselves, the school districts and schools may be potentially at fault for school sexual abuse. Often, schools fail to conduct thorough background checks on school employees and fail to vet these employees properly. This allows predators to walk the halls with students who become their victims.

If the school failed to vet the perpetrator properly, then they can potentially be held liable. Furthermore, in many cases, the other school employees know about the abusers but fail to do anything about it. Many schools have an environment of secrecy, allowing the perpetrator to abuse children without any consequences. Also, in some cases, students report the abuse, but poor record-keeping and inconsistent policies allow the report to be “swept under the rug.”

In a 2017 case in Sweetwater Union High School District of Chula Vista, California, a male teacher was investigated, but he was ultimately offered a convenient deal to quietly leave the district and go to a different public school. The settlement agreement essentially allowed the perpetrator to simply relocate to a new school with his reputation unscathed, where he could potentially abuse more children.

In other instances of abuse, students may feel that no one would believe them or that the investigation process would be too complicated for them to actually achieve justice. This demonstrates the grave, systemic issues that exist in the school systems, which often promote secrecy and cover-ups.

Why don’t other educators report the abuse?

Though most states consider teachers and other school employees mandated reporters, many educators fail to abide by their legal obligation to report signs of child abuse. There have been cases where educators are found guilty of failing to report suspected abuse. This raises the question, then, why don’t educators report to the authorities if they suspect that a fellow educator is sexually abusing a child?

The perpetrators often have reputations as abusers; however, their behavior is usually an open secret. The perpetrators are often skilled manipulators who groom the student, their parents, and other staff members to facilitate their sexual abuse. Even if employees know about the abuse, they are apprehensive about reporting it for various reasons. These reasons can include:

  • Damaging the reputation of a colleague
  • Damaging the reputation of the school or the district
  • Fear of legal repercussions
  • Liability for monetary damages

Furthermore, while many schools might have policies in their handbooks or on their websites, many school employees are unaware of what school employee sexual misconduct is, how to detect the warning signs, and how to report the abuse both to the school and to the police to start a criminal investigation.

Is sexual abuse more common in some types of schools?

Sex abuse can happen in any type of school. Whether the school is a private school, public school, religious school, or a college campus, perpetrators are often in a school environment with close access to children.

  • Public Schools. Child sexual abuse is prevalent in public schools. Especially with the cover-ups and failure of public school employees to report abusers, perpetrators can easily abuse children and get away with it. Unfortunately, not all states require school districts and school boards to track sex abuse at schools. Even in states that do require tracking, abuse still happens. With internal investigations sometimes covering the abuse, many reports of abuse go without further criminal or civil investigation. If the school asks the abuser to leave, they do not always tell the next school that the abuser applies to about their history. There are many injustices that happen to survivors of sex abuse in schools. It is crucial to contact an experienced law firm to learn about your legal rights if you were abused while in public school.
  • Catholic School. While many headlines have described the sex abuse scandal of the Roman Catholic Church, many people do not realize that the abusers were present in Catholic Schools as well. Many priests and clergy member used their close proximity to students and power to abuse thousands of children. The Church and the schools within the church system covered up the abuse for decades. However, survivors are now able to bring claims against their abusers, even if the abuse happened decades ago.
  • Private Schools. Some parents may send their child to a private school, believing that these schools are safer than public schools. However, in a 2016 investigation, the Boston Globe reported that 67 New England private schools faced sexual abuse or sexual harassment allegations.
  • Universities and Colleges. Even though most students on college campuses are not minors, they can still be victims of sexual abuse by authority figures. The USC George Tyndall sex abuse scandal is a perfect example of this. Over the span of decades, Tyndall, acting as the school doctor, abused hundreds of women. He was arrested in 2019, and USC paid out over $1 billion to the victims. 

No matter what type of school was attended, if a school employee sexually abused or sexually harassed you or a loved one, you may be entitled to compensation. You do not have to seek justice alone. A knowledgeable, experienced law firm can help you receive the compensation you may be entitled to, to help you in your healing journey.

How can you prevent school sex abuse?

There are many steps that school districts, school employees, educational institutions, and parents can take to help prevent school sex abuse. These steps should not only be viewed as a moral obligation but as a professional standard of care. On an individual level, an adult should take steps to:

  • Know About Sexual Abuse. Many people have a misconception that sexual abuse happens randomly by strangers. However, the facts show that most children know their abusers. This means that abuse can occur in a child’s home, in school, in sports leagues, in religious groups, or anywhere else that a child is supposed to be protected and cared for by a trusted adult. Adults must understand that abuse could be happening right in front of them, and they should be aware of the warning signs.

  • Know the Warning Signs. As mentioned, adults must understand the warning signs of child sexual abuse. These signs can be physical, behavioral, or emotional. Some of the physical signs may include unexplained bleeding or bruising on a child’s body. Other symptoms include genital bleeding or sexually transmitted infections. However, since most school employees would not know if those signs exist, school employees should be aware of the behavioral and emotional signs as well. For behavioral signs, one can look to see if the child has excessive knowledge of sexual topics; if the child talks excessively about sexual topics or engages in early sexual behavior; if the child keeps secrets or is not as talkative as usual; if the child is overly compliant or spends an unusual amount of time alone; or if the child is afraid to be left alone with specific individuals. Emotional signs include changes in eating habits, changes in the child’s mood or personality, increased aggression, excessive worries or fears, an increase in health problems, or self-harming behaviors. It is vital for all school employees to be aware of these warning signs to prevent and stop child sexual abuse.

  • Understand Age-Appropriate Sexual Development. School employees and other adults in the child’s life should understand what healthy or normal sexual development looks like for each age group. This knowledge will help give individuals the ability to recognize warning signs in children.

  • Support School Policies. While many schools have policies in place surrounding sexual harassment between students and between students and teachers, they are only effective if the school environment actively supports and promotes them. Encourage students and staff members to have open discussions about these policies and ensure that students understand the importance of these types of policies. Students must understand their right to be respected by others and their obligation to respect others as well. If the school does not have these policies in place, then encourage your school to create and implement them.

  • Encourage Parents to Be Involved and Educate Children. As a teacher or other school employee, it is essential to encourage parents to discuss topics around sex and children’s bodies with their child. Parents should understand that they have a crucial role in educating children, especially if a school district does not have sexual education programs. Parents should talk to children openly about their bodies, what private parts are and why they are private, and the fact that no one has a right to touch them without their permission. It is also crucial that parents talk to their children about being assertive in their communication when they do not want to be touched. Parents should also encourage their children to speak honestly and openly with them. Children must feel comfortable talking about anything that happened to them and saying “no” in inappropriate situations. Therefore, children should also understand and recognize what is appropriate and what is not appropriate when it comes to their own bodies and interacting with others.

  • Trust Your Intuition. If you see a colleague or student exhibiting warning signs, it is crucial that you do not just ignore it—speak up and say something. Whether that is saying something directly to the colleague, pulling the student aside to ask them if they are okay, or reporting directly to the administration—if you see something, you should say something. Silence has allowed child sexual abuse to exist for decades, so we must all work together to stop it.

  • Do Not Be Afraid to Report. This goes hand-in-hand with trusting your intuition. You should never be afraid to report something that does not seem right to you. By reporting any potential abuse, you may be helping save a child’s life from the long-term effects that child sexual abuse often leads to.

  • Create a Safe Environment. You should always create a safe environment that students feel comfortable in. No matter what the child’s background is, they could be experiencing child sexual abuse. It is crucial to be a trusted adult in children’s lives so that they have someone to turn to for help. Emphasize to the students that your classroom or school is a safe place, and if they are experiencing problems in their lives, they can always talk to you about those problems. Emphasize that keeping secrets will not help keep them safe or ensure their safety.

Besides the steps that individuals can take, school districts as a whole must take steps to ensure their students’ safety:

  • Develop and promote an educator sexual misconduct policy. This policy should be different from other policies surrounding sexual harassment or mandated reporting. Instead, this should focus on the exact actions that are inappropriate for educators, and it should provide information for educators to prevent, recognize, and report sexual misconduct. It should be required that each school employee possesses, reads, and understands this policy. Employees should be required to review the handbook every year. The handbook should include:
  • A clear definition, with examples, of educator sexual misconduct;
  • Clear explanations and examples of the warning signs of educator sexual misconduct;
  • Guidelines to assist employees in understanding boundaries, appropriate behavior, and inappropriate behavior;
  • Clear social media policies on what is appropriate and inappropriate when interacting with students online;
  • A list of potential sanctions an employee will face for violating this policy. Emphasize that these sanctions apply to all school employees and staff members;
  • Clear prevention procedures;
  • Regulated Hiring policies;
  • A clear policy for training school staff to prevent employee sexual misconduct;
  • A list of resources and references for employees and staff members to be able to learn more;
  • A list of responsibilities that includes a clear policy for identifying red flags in both adults and students;
  • A description of the legal responsibility that school faculty members have;
  • Transparent reporting and investigation procedures. Make sure that employees and staff members understand that there will not be any punishment for coming forward. 

School districts must ensure that each employee they hire to work in a school has been thoroughly vetted through extensive background checks. These background checks include both criminal background checks and extensive research into an employee’s history. Many times, schools that fire employees for sexual abuse hide the reason for dismissal to not tarnish the abuser’s record. There must be policies in place that forbid hiding the abuser’s history, that allow future school to look into those histories, that allow communication with former colleagues, and that give access to the complete background of potential employees. The following list details some steps to take:

  • School districts can make this process easier by having a standard form for all potential employees, including a statement that false information or incomplete information can result in termination of employment.
  • Also, in the application, request the applicant to provide names and contact information of supervisors at previous roles as well as references from past employments, volunteer organizations, and any other place of work they’ve been in.
  • On the form, include questions about previous convictions, arrests, or any other past criminal activity.
  • Screen all potential employees and staff members—even substitute teachers, coaches, or volunteers.
  • Conduct federal, state, and national criminal background checks using fingerprint scans and social security numbers.
  • Use online search engines, social media sites, and sex offender databases to research potential applicants’ histories.

Besides using the separate employee policy, provide annual training to all school staff members who have direct contact with students. This includes teachers, administrators, coaches, substitute teachers, volunteers, and staff members. Ensure that you train everyone on the following topics:

  • Definitions of sexual misconduct;
  • Examples of sexual misconduct;
  • Warning signs of sexual abuse and red flags in both adults and students;
  • Short-term and long-term effects of child sexual abuse;
  • Policies for reporting suspicions;
  • Ensuring all members are comfortable with reporting;
  • Emphasizing the importance of reporting;
  • Processes for responding to allegations;
  • Encouraging reporting and speaking out against the abuser.

Ensure that each classroom is closely supervised and checked on before classes begin, during lunch periods, between classes, and after school. Also, have supervisors checking all closed doors and obstructed windows consistently. Supervise areas that are less public, including parking lots, bathrooms, changing rooms, and other isolated places in the school.

  • It is crucial to avoid allowing students and teachers to be alone together in a closed space.
  • Always encourage teachers to use libraries, cafeterias, or conference rooms for tutoring or extra help.
  • Teachers should always have at least two adults present for any after-school activities, clubs, and practices.
  • Supervisors and fellow school employees should always watch for suspicious behavior. This includes observing if a student is acting differently, if a teacher is alone with students, if a student is in an employee’s car, or if a teacher is repeatedly spending alone time with a particular student or group of students.
  • If you see something that may seem odd—do not hesitate to say something. If the student or teacher has an abnormal reaction, take note of that and do not be afraid to report it. Watch for signs of intimidation after you make an allegation.

The school district should have a uniform, organized response method for investigating and writing reports on an allegation. These reports should follow state and federal guidelines.

  • Schools should have a system that tracks all allegations and should not “cover up” any alleged abuse.
  • Any policy should encourage individuals to report any suspicions.
  • Be sure to create a policy that does not deter employees or other students from reporting any abuse.
  • Support and protect students from abuse and always keep their names confidential. Let anyone who reports abuse know that they will not be held liable for the abuse.
  • Any policy should include a clear statement that any leader who covers up the abuse will be held legally responsible.
  • Provide emotional, psychological, and academic support to victims.

Mandatory Reporting of Child Sexual Abuse

Teachers and other school employees are considered mandated reporters. A mandated reporter is required by law to report any signs of neglect or abuse of a child. Each state varies on specific requirements. This means that as a mandated reporter, you have both a moral obligation and a legal obligation to protect students and other children in your care.

Can you sue your school for sexual abuse?

Yes. Both federal law and state laws allow victims to sue both the abuser and the institution that allowed the abuse for reparations. Specifically, Title IX of the Educational Amendments Act of 1972 is a tool that sexual abuse victims can use at public schools that receive federal funds. Survivors can file Title IX lawsuits, but they must show that the school was negligent, either by allowing the abuser to act as an employee at the school or failing to act when the sexual abuse or misconduct was brought to the school’s attention.

Further, since many states have passed their own versions of the Child Victims Act, victims of sexual abuse in schools can still bring about civil lawsuits and criminal lawsuits, no matter how old they are or how long ago the abuse happened. Many former students have come forward in recent years to expose the abusers and the schools that failed to protect them.

If your school failed to protect you, and you were a victim of child sex abuse at the hands of a school employee or fellow student, then you may be entitled to compensation. The laws can be tricky to navigate. However, experienced sexual abuse lawyers understand these complexities and can help you understand your rights on your healing journey. You may still be able to take legal action.

What should I do if I was sexually abused at school?

If someone abused you while you were in school, you do not have to go through the complex legal processes of seeking justice alone. With the recent changes in many state statutes of limitations, you can potentially still bring forward a claim, even if the abuse happened years ago. Here at Herman Law, we compassionately advocate for school sex abuse victims and fight for their rights in many sexual abuse cases. Contact us now to learn how we can help you.

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If you were raped or sexually assaulted in a school, the school may be responsible. And it’s like any other institutional case, we’re going to look at number one, whether or not the school was negligent. And what that means is were there red flags, was the school on notice that the perpetrator, whether it was another student or whether it’s a teacher was unsafe? What we find is when we investigate in many cases unfortunately they’re not the first victim and that once someone’s a predator, there’s usually more than one victim. And so we research that and we investigate that to see whether or not there was notice to the institution. Now school cases, if they’re public school cases or public universities may have another type of claim that can be broad, and that’s called a Title IX Claim. And Title IX Claim is basically a federal claim that can be brought against schools, where there is notice of sexual harassment and they don’t take what we call remedial action after receiving the notice to protect students.