Monday, October 29, 2007

School's Double Standard on Sexual Harassment

Last week, there was a great deal of buzz in the education community on the Associated Press' expose of sexual misconduct among our nations teachers. Follow up stories discussed how the various rules, or lack thereof, contributes to the inability to police our teacher ranks for pedophiles and sexual abusers. One of the more galling issues raised by the AP's efforts is that it is not only difficult to stop these predators from getting jobs in our schools, but it is also hard to permanently rid our schools of such "teachers" once they are discovered, with the AP citing the plethora of practical and legal protections to safeguard the rights of teachers. Shockingly, though not unsurprisingly, those same protections are not available if the students are the ones doing the harassing or assaulting.

Back in July of htis year, a story came out of McMinnville, Oregon of two 13 year old boys who were hauled off to jail for five (5) days for swatting the behinds of their female classmates, in a prank the boys claimed was inspired by the movie "Jackass." There is no doubt in my mind that these boys needed to be punished (just like I needed to be punished for similar behavior when I was a young lad--but was at least smart enough (or lucky enough) not to get caught. However, for their behavior, which happened a number of times but in relatively short period of time, the boys had several violations of their civil rights occur and because a prosecutor was looking to make some bones, were charged with felony sexual assault. if they had been convicted, the boys faced ten (10) years in prison and a lifetime on the sex offender registration list. Fortunately, the public outcry and a sensible judge, led to the dismissal of the more serious charges.

But the dichotomy between how these boys were treated and how teachers accused of much worse are treated is utterly mindboggling. Teachers accused of sexual misconduct can and often do resign from one school and simply go to another state or in some cases a neighboring school district and get another job teaching.

The AP found 2,500 reported incidents over the course of five years, an average of 500 incidents a year. Given that there are some 3 million teachers in the United States, the overwhelming majority as disgusted by the behavior of their "colleagues" as the rest of us should be, the number of teachers involved in accusations of sexual misconduct are tiny, we are talking about less than 1/10th of one percent, but it is a number far higher than it ever should be.

Part of the problem is the teachers' unions. According to the AP report:
Two of the nation’s major teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, each denounced sex abuse while emphasizing that educators’ rights also must be taken into account.

“Students must be protected from sexual predators and abuse, and teachers must be protected from false accusations,” said NEA President Reg Weaver, who refused to be interviewed and instead released a two-paragraph statement.

Kathy Buzad of the AFT said that “if there’s one incident of sexual misconduct between a teacher and a student that’s one too many.”
II have a fairly long-running beef with the teachers unions on a number of issues, but I would have thought this would be one where we might agree. f there was ever a subject which the teachers' unions should be getting out in front of it should be the one. Their expressed sentiments might be right, but their actions are another thing.

There are protections for the rights of teachers and that is fine, but the problem is that teacher apparently have more rights than their students when it comes to sexual harassment and misconduct. Students of misconduct are treated like common criminals (which they may be), but a teacher is afforded more protection. Students are suspended from school, often at the whim of a single administrator. Meanwhile a teacher might be removed from the classroom (thankfully) but they are often put in a desk job or even worse, paid administrative leave while their case is pending.

From the AP Story:
The AP investigation found efforts to stop individual offenders but, overall, a deeply entrenched resistance toward recognizing and fighting abuse. It starts in school hallways, where fellow teachers look away or feel powerless to help. School administrators make behind-the-scenes deals to avoid lawsuits and other trouble. And in state capitals and Congress, lawmakers shy from tough state punishments or any cohesive national policy for fear of disparaging a vital profession.

That only enables rogue teachers, and puts kids who aren’t likely to be believed in a tough spot.

In case after case the AP examined, accusations of inappropriate behavior were dismissed. One girl in Mansfield, Ohio, complained about a sexual assault by teacher Donald Coots and got expelled. It was only when a second girl, years later, brought a similar complaint against the same teacher that he was punished.
One class of offenders has their rights to an education stripped away with little in the way of due process. The second gets so much "due process" as to stagger the mind.

The Catholic priest scandal enraged a nation, but the potential here is much worse. Priests come in contact with a small proportion of the populace of children. Conversely, nearly every child in America is entrusted to the care and supervision of a whole series of teachers every year. Surely, there must be some manner to protect our children. Too often the matter is swept underneath the rug.
Too often, problem teachers are allowed to leave quietly. That can mean future abuse for another student and another school district.

“They might deal with it internally, suspending the person or having the person move on. So their license is never investigated,” says Charol Shakeshaft, a leading expert in teacher sex abuse who heads the educational leadership department at Virginia Commonwealth University.

It’s a dynamic so common it has its own nicknames—“passing the trash” or the “mobile molester.”
But maybe there is opportunity to impose a solution, and as much as it pains me to say, this one has to come from Congress.

Congress is reviewing No Child Left Behind (formerly known as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) and now is the perfect time to force some action on the states. As part of the re-authorization, more can be done to prevent the "passing of the trash." Not only must teaching credentials be revoked in a state when misconduct leads to resignation or punishment, that information must be shared between states. In addition, a little self-policing by the unions and licensing boards will go a long way to ending this kind of abuse.

Sex abuse by teachers, no matter how tame it may appear to the outsider, cannot be tolerated nor should it. But to end it, we must be better at policing it. To end it, we have to treat all harassers, regardless of position in the same manner. We can't have kids subjected to one standard of justice and adults to another.


Matthew K. Tabor said...

That's an excellent point - I hadn't made the connection with the double standard.

We've got zero tolerance policies for kids, but teachers/administrators often seem to get away with whatever they can negotiate. I'm really starting to get tired of reading the stories, both local and national, of offenders who were allowed to repeat.

I'd like to see the unions commit to their own zero tolerance policies.

Henry Cate said...

I wonder if part of the issue is that children and parents are easier to push around, while teachers have a union to protect them?