Fun With Numbers!

Last Sunday’s Washington Post had a myth-busting feature about the Catholic abuse scandal. One aspect caught my eye:

Sexual abuse of minors is not the province of the Catholic Church alone. About 4 percent of priests committed an act of sexual abuse on a minor between 1950 and 2002, according to a study being conducted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. That is roughly consistent with data on many similar professions.

An extensive 2007 investigation by the Associated Press showed that sexual abuse of children in U.S. schools was “widespread,” and most of it was never reported or punished. And in Portland, Ore., last week, a jury reached a $1.4 million verdict against the Boy Scouts of America in a trial that showed that since the 1920s, Scouts officials kept “perversion files” on suspected abusers but kept them secret.

It seems an awkward pivot from a study based on actual data to the AP project that, while valuable for exposing how porous the system for policing educators for these problems is, doesn’t produce a real estimate that can be extrapolated across the teaching profession.  And the numbers AP did come up with don’t get you to 4 percent.

Applying the lens of common sense,  I’m guessing that if close to one in twenty teachers were sexually abusing kids we’d be hearing about it and that the actual figure is lower than that but amplified by the large number of schoolteachers across the country.  In other words, many more teachers than priests.

That’s not to say that sexual abuse isn’t a problem in schools.  It’s a big one and a lot of what I saw as a state board of education member dealing with licensure issues was shocking.  But, I don’t think this particular assertion as to the scale is responsible or holds up.

Update: Lively debate about this on Twitter. But even Charol Shakeshaft points out in the comments that there is no hard evidence on the number/percent of teachers and that the priest/teacher comparison itself is a lousy one.  Self-reporting in her data aside, I do think that her definitions cloud rather than clarify the extent of this problem because they are so broad and somewhat ambiguous.   With issues like this, once  you start seeing it everywhere you see it nowhere and that hinders solutions.  And per my original post above, this is a real problem.  If you haven’t read the AP story it’s worth checking out.

Finally, I do know of one project in the works on this that should shed more empirical light when it’s done.

3 Replies to “Fun With Numbers!”

  1. There is no study of the number of teachers who sexually abuse. The only data we have for schools comes from an analysis of data collected by the Harris International Poll for the American Association of University Women first in 1993 and again in Fall 2000 . Eighth through 11th grade students in the sample responded to a survey administered by trained interviewers during English classes.

    The survey asked students about their experiences of various types of behaviors. None of them were labeled sexual abuse. The 14 stems were developed by an advisory panel of experts in the field of sexual harassment and correspond to behaviors that legally constitute sexual harassment, abuse, or misconduct. The questions focus on experiences that occurred in school.

    The gating question asked students to respond to each type of behavior, no matter who the abuser had been. Follow-up questions for each of the behaviors identified the role of the abuser (student, teacher, other school employee, etc.) and the place where the abuse occurred.

    The question asked students was:
    During your whole school life, how often, if at all, has anyone (this includes students, teachers, other school employees, or anyone else) done the following things to you when you did not want them to?
    • Made sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks.
    • Showed, gave or left you sexual pictures, photographs, illustrations, messages, or notes.
    • Wrote sexual messages/graffiti about you on bathroom walls, in locker rooms, etc.
    • Spread sexual rumors about you.
    • Said you were gay or a lesbian.
    • Spied on you as you dressed or showered at school.
    • Flashed or “mooned” you.
    • Touched, grabbed, or pinched you in a sexual way.
    • Intentionally brushed up against you in a sexual way.
    • Pulled at your clothing in a sexual way.
    • Pulled off or down your clothing.
    • Blocked your way or cornered you in a sexual way.
    • Forced you to kiss him/her.
    • Forced you to do something sexual, other than kissing.
    For each behavior the respondent identifies as having experienced, she or he is asked a series of follow-up questions, including the role of the offender (student, teacher, counselor, etc.), where the incident took place, and when the incident happened. All analyses of these data are based upon the stems above, which constitute civil and criminal definitions of sexual abuse and harassment.
    The sample was drawn from a list of 80,000 schools to create a stratified two-stage sample design of 2,064 8th to 11th grade students . Trained Harris Interactive researchers administered surveys in schools to 1,559 public school students in grades 8 to 11; 505 public school 8th to 11th grade students completed online surveys. The sample included representative subpopulations of Latino/a, white, and African American students. The findings can be generalized to all public school students in 8th to 11th grades at a 95 percent confidence level with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

  2. Oops. This got sent before I was done.

    Nearly 7% of students indicated that they had been the recipient of a form of physical sexual conduct by an adult working in a school — mostly teachers and coaches — at least once during K – whatever grade they were in.

    Remember, the question was whether they were the recipients of UNWANTED conduct. That excludes all of those who didn’t care or were flattered by the attention.

    That’s a lot of kids in a lot of schools.

    The Catholic Church numbers cannot be compared to the education numbers. The Catholic church as data on the number of priest. In schools, what data we have are on students.

  3. Although this posting compares the only two sexual abuse prevalence studies between these entities, an even more important question is why there are no other numbers to compare. Similar to the woes of the Catholic Church (sexual molestation of their youth) the problem of sexual abuse in the k-12 school system is even more difficult to track because of the many government entities involved. Many of us would like to believe the problem with sexual abuse is simply due to individual offenders, but there are many loopholes in the current system, making it difficult to keep molesting teachers out of the classroom and near impossible to calculate a prevalence rate.

    While we know the numbers of abuse within the Catholic Church as reported by priests (which could be grossly underestimated/dishonest), and the numbers of student reports in the k-12 school system as cited by Charol Shakeshaft, both of which can be embarrassing and have legal consequences, school systems are faced with even more problems which hinder reporting, tracking, prevention, and investigation of cases.

    Based on a an University of Virginia IRB approval dissertation study (to be completed August, 2010) and pilot study amounting to over 55 interviews with Virginia educational actors (State and local Board of Education members, policy analysts, superintendents, administrators, teachers, counselors, law enforcement) and the collection of over 125 Virginia educator sexual abuse court case profiles (2000-2010), there are significant loopholes within educator sexual abuse policies, laws and reporting. While most actors are unaware of required laws or fail to implement them, school personnel feel powerless to report their colleagues, and administrators handle cases internally to avoid lawsuits and bad publicity. Although there are many loopholes exacerbating the continuation of this problem, below are those hindering prevalence rate statistics for sexual abuse in the k-12 school system.

    1. Criminal court records are not searchable by keyword (you can only search cases with a name, case number, or code). After consulting with local and state court clerks, violence reports, and requesting statistics on “educator sexual abuse” from numerous government and research entities, no one is able to tell me how many cases have been reported. Furthermore, it can be tricky to search cases with an individual name or case number because many court records are not online (meaning a written request or a trip to that particular court is required). Once there, it may not be possible to access the records because many are sealed due to the age of the victim.
    It’s disappointing in our advanced technological age that court records are not searchable and statistics are not compiled in a way that can tell us how often teachers are accused or convicted of sexually abusing students (in fact- the system still runs on DOS). In a goose chase for records I have found over 125 convicted VA court records of educator sexual abuse since 2000 (I have only visited a handful of courts in the state of VA).

    2. Unfortunately, even if we were able to get the number of convicted cases of educator sexual abuse, the majority of cases (95% or more) are plea bargained for lesser crimes, dismissed or handled informally by the division. There is no public record for informal or dismissed cases.

    3. Next you wonder, how about the cases revoked by the Department of Education, surely we have those numbers. Nope. Of the 150 licenses revoked since 2000 by Virginia’s DOE, they do not list what type of crime or why the license was revoked. However, if you cross check each of the names with the sex offender registry or the county where they were last employed, you will find that over half of them have been convicted of a sexual abuse crime (indecent liberties, sexual assault, rape, communication of a minor).

    4. The closest data on the number of sexual abuse crimes by an employee of a school are those reported by Child Protective Services (CPS). In the state of VA, this data took over a year and half and many written requests to get. 29 founded cases in 2009, 19 in 2008, 25 in 2007, 15 in 2006 and 30 in 2005. Amounting to 118 VA cases within a five-year period. With only 150 license revocations in the state of Virginia since 2000 (5 additional years), we may be missing the revocation of a few of these cases. Unfortunately, I can only tell you the number of cases for the state of VA, each CPS State system operates independently. Meaning searches and statistics are not calculated on a national basis. An average of 24 cases of employee-student abuse are founded each year by CPS in the State of Virginia.

    5. While CPS records may show how often cases are founded and perhaps one day we will have better criminal statistics, what about all the cases that don’t make it to CPS or law enforcement (95% or more)? Like the Catholic Church, school systems are fearful of community reaction, litigation, and reputation. Despite mandatory reporting laws, school systems take every effort to investigate and handle cases internally. Internal school investigations often compromise investigations by giving offenders a head’s up to erase evidence or intimidate the victim. Furthermore, administrators cannot conduct search warrants and are not trained in forensic interviewing.

    Students don’t come forward to report abuse because they are fearful of retaliation from the offender, fearful of not being believed, and embarrassed. Studies on abuse estimate that over 90% of victims will not report the abuse- making it even more difficult to know how often sexual abuse actually happens.

    6. Consider states like Texas (and 31 other states) where the age of consent is 16. There is no public record of these complaints because it is not a crime, but handled informally within the school division as an inappropriate behavior. Even though many might consider a 40-year-old teacher wooing a 16-year-old student, sexual abuse.

    7. Based on a study with incarcerated sexual abuse offenders, the average number of prior victims before a sexual abuse offender is caught is 9 (Pryor). So, even if only 1% of employees are abusing students, they may be abusing a lot of students. One such example is Michael Allee, a Virginia coach and teacher who transferred schools 4 times, and had 7 known victims before finally having his license revoked.

    Since we only have student-reported data to estimate abuse in schools, I will offer my estimate of sexual abuse in the k-12 school system with regards to these loopholes.

    From my interviews with local educational actors, each district will handle an estimated 1 case per school, every two years. Cases range from “inappropriate behavior” such as touching a student, flirting over email or web-based social sites, to criminal offenses (indecent liberties, sexual assault, and rape). In one such district, administrators reported 18 cases they had dealt with in the last ten years, but the district’s detectives and law enforcement were unaware of any cases and there were no court records and no license revocations. Only informal reprimands and resignations. Based on confidential reports from educational actors I estimate there are 350 cases (reported or handled informally) each year in the State of Virginia. However, if the research holds true – that only 5-10% of cases are reported – that would leave some 3200 cases not reported by students. With this estimate, some 4% of teachers could be abusing students (interesting that this is the same estimate from the Catholic Church study).

    Although I am only giving an informed estimate, why has the government not funded a study to find out how often sexual abuse happens in our school systems (anonymous student, teacher or administrator survey)? Currently local schools survey students on use of drugs, marijuana, illegal activities, and sexual activities, but do not ask about unwanted sexual activity and by whom.

    Perhaps states are fearful of the results. Lawmakers and teacher unions may not want to disparage the reputation of our most trusted employees. And perhaps culturally we may all want to deny that our most trusted and talented teachers are capable of such an unconscionable act.

    If law makers and educational actors are given “numbers” or strong statistics showing what percentage of teachers admit to inappropriate touching, comments, and relationships with students- maybe prevention and awareness of this problem will be taken more seriously and more appropriate funding for prevention and investigation will be allocated. However, this information could start a “witch-hunt” and the trust we place in our schools to take care of students and serve in loco parentis may be forever tarnished.

    Knowing “by the numbers” and making this problem more transparent could be the most valuable information for better protecting students from abuse by school employees.

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