Millions of Students Affected by Sexual Misconduct in Public Schools

Published September 1, 2004

Sexual abuses by Catholic priests, some extending back several decades, finally exploded in recent years into massive media coverage, lawsuits, and payments in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The Archdiocese of Portland, Oregon has filed for bankruptcy, others are close to bankruptcy, and support for the Catholic church has been seriously weakened.

The public schools may face a similar crisis. A report issued in June by the U.S. Department of Education indicates as many as 4.5 million public school students–nearly 1 in 10–experienced unacceptable sexual behavior by a school employee during their school years. Even allowing for some margin of error, that suggests a problem of proportions that would dwarf those in religious environments.

Report author Charol Shakeshaft, a Hofstra University professor, concluded the 1 in 10 victim figure (9.6 percent) was the “most accurate” estimate available after reviewing nearly 900 sources addressing educator sexual misconduct in public schools. Although critics immediately raised objections, Shakeshaft has noted none of the critics cite evidence contradicting her findings. In fact, as she pointed out in the report, “Possible limitations of the study would all suggest that the findings reported here under-estimate educator sexual misconduct in schools.”

Nor is this the only recent study to reach such disturbing conclusions. Robert J. Shoop, an education law professor at Kansas State University, released last year Sexual Exploitation in Schools: How to Spot It and Stop It (Corwin Press, 2003). In April 2004, the Education Writers Association awarded its Fred M. Heckinger Grand Prize for Distinguished Education Reporting to Christine Willmsen and Maureen O’Hagan of the Seattle Times. Their series, “Coaches Who Prey: The Abuse of Girls and the System that Allows It,” is a report about more than 150 Oregon coaches who sexually abused their female athletes.

Not only may such incidents in public schools outnumber those in church settings, individual examples sometimes describe circumstances that are barely believable. Whereas the charges against priests usually involved abuses in very private circumstances, some of the incidents in public schools are shockingly public.

In Pennsylvania, for example, two teenagers were found guilty of raping a 13-year-old girl in a public school classroom while the class and teacher were present. The teacher was said to be reading a book or dozing off while the assault was being committed.

Even more blatant was an incident in a Texas middle school. Two boys were active with a 14-year-old girl “in a sexual manner.” Rather than stopping it, the teacher, a 21-year-old male, joined in, then raped the girl.

Most instances are not so public. More typical, but no less troubling, was what happened in an Ohio school when a 12-year-old boy was sent to a principal’s office for counseling. The principal began a year-long sexual affair with the child. Later asked to explain her actions, the principal said, “part of his psyche was missing,” and the boy had “said no one had ever loved him before.”

Remarkably, while such events are regularly reported, there has been no massive media coverage, no public outrage, and no rush of lawsuits against either individual educators or public school districts.

“When the Catholic Church faced a similar scandal there was extensive outrage and investigations were launched by the Church, the media, and the public, and rightfully so,” commented Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council. “Similar scrutiny should also follow these revelations about our nation’s public education system where attendance is compulsory.”

Shakeshaft’s report provides a list of recommendations for preventing sexual misconduct by educators, including state and federal registries. Some steps already have been taken with general laws, such as Megan’s laws to require sexual predators to keep authorities notified of their whereabouts. In addition, specific laws in many states require criminal background checks of public school staff. However, such laws have little effect if they are ignored.

A few years ago, for example, a review of 412 teachers hired by the Cleveland, Ohio school district disclosed only 26 had undergone required background checks. Not only did 192 school employees have felony convictions, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported, but 27 of them had three or more.

“The overwhelming majority of America’s educators are true professionals doing what might be called the ‘essential’ work of democracy [and] the vast majority of schools in America are safe places,” noted Deputy Education Secretary Eugene W. Hickock in the preface to the June Department of Education report. “Nevertheless, we must be willing to confront the issues that are explored in this study. We must all expand our efforts to ensure that children have safe and secure learning communities that engender public confidence.”

David W. Kirkpatrick ([email protected]) is a senior education fellow with the U.S. Freedom Foundation and also with the Buckeye Institute in Columbus, Ohio. A version of this article first appeared on on July 16, 2004.

For more information …

The 156-page June 2004 report from the U.S. Department of Education, “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature,” by Hofstra University Professor Charol Shakeshaft, is available online at

The results of a year-long investigation by Christine Willmsen and Maureen O’Hagan were reported in the series, “Coaches Who Prey: The Abuse of Girls and the System that Allows It,” in the Seattle Times December 14-17, 2003. The reports are available online at