Sexual Misconduct by Teachers is Disturbingly Common
> 10/23/2007 10:59:39 AM

Reports of educators taking sexual liberties with their students rightly raise the ire of the public, but most consider the problem to be limited to a few exceptional cases perpetrated by sexual deviants who somehow slipped through the minute cracks in our education system. A new analytical study by the Associated Press suggests that such incidents are far more common than one would like to believe: from 2001 to 2005, more than 2,500 teachers across the country had their credentials revoked, denied or sanctioned for sexual misconduct. Victims were underaged minors or young adults in a 1,800 of those cases, and 80% were students of the perpetrators.

While some cases may seem relatively insignificant and garner little public attention, even the smallest infractions can carry enormous ramifications, their effects often remaining with students throughout their lives. The most common popular news reports concern striking cases like those of Mary Kay Letourneau or Debra LaFave, attractive female teachers who had affairs with their underaged, barely pubescent male students. But the vast majority of sexual misconduct cases in American schools are not so immediately tabloid-worthy; they are, in fact, frighteningly familar, most often involving male teachers who take advantage of their female students in any number of ways which may or may not involve direct sexual activity. Harassment, inappropriate groping and other such deplorable behaviors are not slight infractions. They are serious crimes that, perhaps most importantly, blatantly defile the crucial line separating those in authority from their underaged charges. The media's conscious decision to focus on grotesquely fascinating anomalies like those of Letourneau and LaFave unfortunately distorts the public's perception of this crucial issue.

The AP's study noted efforts to uncover and punish the acts of individual offenders amid a prevalent state of near-denial regarding the larger behavioral pattern. Most Americans, including those working in the education field, simply seem unable or unwilling to believe that so many teachers would abuse their power by taking advantage of those who lack the ability to defend themselves. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between sexual misconduct among teachers and the long-standing pattern of child abuse at the hands of Catholic clergymen. Unfortunately, positions of power will eventually be abused by a small but devastating and predatory minority, and when their names enter the public spotlight they damage the credibility of their professions as a whole.

Many involved in such cases attempt to keep them quiet for obvious reasons, working toward plea deals or taking steps to prevent the stories from leaking to local media outlets. But when such behavior prevents offenders from receiving the punishment they so richly deserve, sacrificing the safety of minors and compromising the rule of law in order to avoid PR disasters and potential lawsuits and allowing sexual deviants to continue teaching, it becomes unacceptable. This defensive approach remains far too common in American schools, but in most cases it can't be put into play at all, because the vast majority of victimized students do not report incidents of abuse, and very few accused offenders ever pay for their crimes. This disturbing trend stems, in part, from the very "moral" and institutional powers that these individuals have exploited; people are simply more inclined to believe the authority figure in cases of conflicting testimony without physical evidence. Some of the young women who accuse their teachers of sexual misconduct end up receiving the lion's share of the blame regarding the incidents in question - a fact that would seem to confirm the state of denial in which the American public currently rests.

The number 2,500 will turn more than a few heads, and it only includes teachers who were caught and punished for their behavior, not to mention that many of the guilty parties abused more than one child. But more than 3 million registered teachers work in the United States, and the overwhelming majority are respectful and principled professionals. The number who use their positions to commit sexual misconduct amounts to little more than a small but very dark spot on an otherwise admirable record. Still, this study will hopefully serve to convince some skeptics that the problem is very real and that, when it does occur, it amounts to a major public health issue. Should parents adopt an irrational paranoia regarding the miniscule possibility that their children may be abused by a teacher? Certainly not. But we need to recognize the gravity of this issue and treat it accordingly. If a child reports inappropriate behavior on the part of his or her teacher, responsible adults should listen very carefully.

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