By David S. Prescott, LICSW, and Kieran McCartan, Ph.D.
The current issue of the Sexual Abuse journal opens with a study by Elizabeth Jeglic, Cynthia Calkins, and their colleagues. It explores sexual misconduct by teachers serving US students from Kindergarten through 12th grade. According to their findings:
Overall, 11.7% of the 6632 participants reported having at least one form of educator sexual misconduct during grades K-12, with 11% reporting sexual comments and less than 1% reporting other forms of sexual misconduct (e.g., receiving sexual photos/messages, being kissed, touched sexually, or engaging in sexual intercourse/oral sex). Those who reported misconduct showed significantly more difficulties in current psychosocial functioning than those who did not report educator misconduct. Academic teachers most often perpetrated the abuse (63%), followed by coaches and gym teachers (20%). Educators who engaged in sexual misconduct were primarily male (85%), whereas students who reported experiencing educator misconduct were primarily female (72%). Rates of disclosure were very low (4%) and some sexual grooming behaviors like gift giving (12%) and showing special attention (29%) were reported.
It can be difficult to comprehend what this all means. Doubtless, there are observers who believe that the 1% figure of being kissed, touched, sexual intercourse/oral sex is encouraging and could be worse. Others (including us) believe that any sexual abuse is unacceptable. A quick Google search suggests that there are over three million educators in the US, suggesting a tremendous amount of abuse that goes undetected. That 11.7% of students should report sexualized comments made by teachers, and that such commentary and possible victim-access behaviors correlate with psychosocial difficulties, shows a high degree of need for prevention efforts. Whatever the intentions of an individual teacher in a particular set of circumstances, this study is clear in its findings.
After polling a small number of teachers, it seems that all too often teacher-education programs stress what to do if one is concerned that someone else is abusing a child. It is rare that these same programs emphasize that this behavior is unacceptable to engage in, and rarer still that teacher-education programs provide information on why even sexualized comments are unacceptable. Our K-12 teacher colleagues report that the lion’s share of discussion around the potential harm of abuse happens during job interviews. Our programs can easily do far better than this.
At a time when conspiracy theories abound about organized groups of influential people grooming children, this paper shows something far more basic: that too many students experience their teachers as violating boundaries and trust. Making matters worse is not just the inherent power imbalance, but the not-unfamiliar feelings of affection that kids can feel towards teachers and caregivers. As we (and others) have said before, abuse is abuse and kids need safe spaces for education. The problem of abuse in schools is not simply the “hot for teacher” trope that one might hear in popular media. Abuse prevention needs to move beyond what we can do to prevent and intervene in others’ abuse and also focus on what we all need to do to maintain our best boundaries. While discussions of prevention often discuss “abuse” as a broad, unspecified category that happens elsewhere in our communities, education about checking out one’s own motives (not to mention ongoing education about the potential unacceptable risk of sexualized comments) would be timely.
Likewise, our public discourse in these areas often focuses on rage against abuse in general and the use of terminologies and person-first language that are, in fact, in widespread use elsewhere. The reality of abuse prevention is entirely different: abuses take place in our schools, churches, police departments, and other venues where trust is paramount. Posting hateful messages that unnecessarily alter lives and careers on Twitter is easy; offering ideas for prevention to those in charge of schools and teacher education is another matter. Our message to society is that if we want to prevent child sexual abuse, it is time we look in the mirror.