Real Reform For Reducing Sexual Abuse In Schools

February 3, 2017

Should high school teachers accept friend requests from students on Facebook? Is it okay if they initiate them? Should they follow students on Instagram or exchange snaps? Is it okay for coaches to drive athletes home from practice? How should a teacher respond if a student calls or texts after hours? And what should the teacher do if the calls or texts are not related to classroom issues?

Our experience working with middle- and high school-age survivors of sexual abuse by teachers, as well as working with their schools, has taught us that leaving it up to individual teachers and staff to decide what's appropriate is a recipe for disaster. Although teachers, students, and administrators face these questions on a near-daily basis, very few schools have policies in place that provide explicit guidance on how to deal with them.

The consequences were laid bare in an investigative report by The Boston Globe into how private high schools handle allegations of sexual abuse. In response to the Globe report, state Sen. Joan Lovely has filed two bills that would make it easier to punish high school teachers who sexually abuse students. The first would extend the statute of limitations for criminal prosecutions for the assault and rape of a child. The second offers a mix of reform measures, including requiring schools that fire a teacher due to allegations of sexual abuse to inform potential school employers of the reason for dismissal.

Lovely’s bills are excellent first steps. But much more can be done to prevent abuse from happening in the first place. Requiring every school to have a written plan that defines appropriate boundaries for teachers, coaches, and others who work with young people in schools would go a long way in preventing opportunities for abuse.

Such plans must be explicit and answer questions about contact on social media. A good policy will also allow for commonsense exceptions to the rule: permitting a coach to drive a student alone in the event of an emergency, or when the teacher and student are related. It will also provide examples for students about what they should do if they overhear another student speaking about sexual harassment or sexual contact with a teacher.

Clear expectations help create a culture in which the norms are established so it is much easier to maintain appropriate boundaries. Knowledge of the policy, and how to obtain exceptions, should be included in annual back-to-school training for students and staff.

It is also crucial that the consequences for bad behavior are clearly defined. Everyone on staff should know what a dismissible offense is. They also need to know that any teacher or member of school staff who has engaged in one may be terminated for cause, and criminal charges may be filed. While this might sound like an obvious consequence, currently it isn’t.

It is one thing to say that a teacher should be fired for violating school policy on teacher-student relationships. It’s quite another to do it when the teacher in question is popular and beloved, the rules are not explicit, and the student insists that they were a fully willing participant. None of these factors — which are often seen as mitigating circumstances — should come into play when deciding how to address a violation of professional standards, but all too often they do.

Last, being fired or forced to resign for having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student should be a permanent part of a teacher’s employment and reference record, even if it has not resulted in a criminal charge or conviction. Requiring schools to report to the state when a teacher has been fired for sexual abuse allegations would ensure that a record based on professional standards is created without having to depend on a student's assessment of the relationship.

To some, these suggestions may sound like an administrative nightmare. But the implementation of the commonwealth’s 2010 law aimed at preventing bullying in schools serves as an example for how this work could get done. That law requires every district in the state to create and publish an anti-bullying plan. When complaints of bullying are made, schools are required to fill out an incident report that is eventually filed with the state.

Few things undermine student and parent trust in a school more than finding out that you or your child were knowingly put in harm's way or that allegations of harm are secondary to reputation. Real reform holds the potential to dramatically decrease incidences of sexual abuse of students by those they have been trained to trust from an early age: their coaches and teachers.

Gina Scaramella is executive director of the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

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