Reporting the Unthinkable: Sex Between Teachers and Students

Published February 1, 1999

“. . . John Shockro, a popular teacher and coach in Mattapoisett, assaulted numerous girls over 23 years. He pleaded guilty last year to seven counts of child rape and six other sexual-assault charges involving two students from 1994 through 1996. . . . Mr. Shockro’s victims reported that he regularly pinned them against walls and lockers, and sometimes slapped or punched them if they balked at sex . . .”

“. . . More than a year before he stole her virginity in the high school wrestling room, Michael Dwayne Blevins had figured out how to make the pretty blonde in his 8th grade science class feel special. . .”

“. . . The 41-year-old teacher was sentenced in May to a year in prison for having oral sex with a 13-year-old female student. He had pleaded guilty to sodomy, sexual abuse, and endangering the welfare of a child. . .”

“. . . When the school band director is convicted for having sex with a 14-year-old trumpet player, more likely than not at least someone in the community will label him a ‘pedophile’ . . .”
Education Week
December 2, 1998

When Teachers Betray Their Trust

In an important and disturbing three-part 12-story series that was uniformly ignored by the national media, Education Week last December published a Special Report called “A Trust Betrayed,” which detailed sexual abuse of students by school employees–male and female, young and old, from science teachers to basketball coaches, from aides to principals.

Although most parents regard schools as sanctuaries where their children will be safe from harm, manipulation, and seduction, hundreds of educators across the country have betrayed that trust, preying sexually on their innocent student wards.

Education Week‘s special report was the result of a six-month effort by Associate Editor Caroline Hendrie and Deputy Managing Editor Steven Drummond. As well as interviewing numerous state and local law enforcement officials, school staff, parents, and victims, the two investigators extensively reviewed court documents, journal articles, and other records. From file, wire, clipping, and database searches, they developed a database of 244 cases of staff-student sexual abuse that were active during the period from March and August last year.

The 244 cases range from single unexpected assaults to sexual relationships stretching over several years, from occurrences of unwanted touching to frightening incidents of serial rape–all by school employees entrusted by parents with the care of their children. The cases break down as follows:

  • More than 7 out of 10 suspects were teachers, with principals, janitors, bus drivers, and librarians making up most of the rest.
  • The average age of suspects was 28, with a range of 21 to 75.
  • 80 percent of the suspects were men; one-third of the victims were boys.
  • 20 percent of the suspects were women; two-thirds of the victims were girls.
  • Student victims ranged from kindergartners to high school seniors, although more than two-thirds of the cases involved high school students aged 14 to 18.
  • No type of school was immune to abuse: public or private, religious or secular, rich or poor, urban or rural.
  • Abuse occurred at the school itself and in school buses, homes, motel rooms, and cars.
  • In nearly half of the cases, suspects were accused of abusing more than one student.

The Education Week series was not the first to report on school employees preying on pupils. In 1996, an investigation conducted by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette focused just on Arkansas (see related article), and in 1993 a national survey was released by the American Association of University Women Foundation. The latter report, based on a survey of 1,600 students in grades 8 through 11, reported that 18 percent of the students said they had been sexually harassed or abused by a school employee. Girls were at much greater risk than boys, with 25 percent of girls reporting sexual abuse or harassment by school employees versus only 10 percent of boys reporting such incidents.

“Students commit suicide over this, or they are crippled emotionally for life,” Terri L. Miller told Education Week. Miller is a mother of four from Pahrump, Nevada, who helped secure passage of a 1997 law prohibiting sex between educators and students. “I send my children to school to be educated, not to be abused by the person I’m entrusting them with,” she added.

Not Always Against the Law

Most parents would be disconcerted, to say the least, to discover that their 16-year-old daughter was involved in a sexual relationship with a much older man. They would likely turn downright distraught if that older man was a teacher at the local high school. But in many states, such affairs are “perfectly legal,” according to Education Week Associate Editor Caroline Hendrie.

For Education Week‘s shocking Special Report, “A Trust Betrayed,” information was gathered from officials in all 50 states concerning their policies on reporting sexual abuse in schools and the legality of sexual relations between school employees and students. Among the findings:

  • In 20 states, it is not a crime for school employees–including teachers, administrators, and coaches–to have sex with students aged 16 and over.
  • In 23 states, it is not a crime for school employees to have sex with students aged 17 and over.
  • In 45 states, it is not a crime for school employees to have sex with students aged 18 and over.
  • In 16 states, it is a crime for adults in a position of trust and authority–teachers, administrators, and coaches among them–to have sex with students under the age of 18.

The Special Report cites two recent cases from Nevada where abuse-of-authority statutes were used to prosecute educators and elicit guilty pleas: a 28-year-old teacher at a Las Vegas Roman Catholic school who had sex with two female students, and a 40-year-old English teacher at a Reno public school who had sex with a 17-year-old student.

Reforms to Address Abuses of Trust

While no advocates of teacher-student sex were identified for the Education Week report, the authors’ six-month examination suggests that a much stronger effort is needed to change district policies and state laws to explicitly prohibit such conduct. Scholars, legal rights advocates, and legal experts have proposed a number of reform measures, among them:

  • Explicit prohibitions on staff-student sex.
  • Efforts to educate staff and students about sexual abuse situations in schools.
  • Improved screening of prospective employees.
  • Improved district and state response to occurrences of sexual abuse.
  • Aggressive investigation of suspected wrongdoing.

“You need a statute in every state that is very specific stating that there is zero tolerance when a student is in school,” former teacher and superintendent Chester Kent told Education Week. Kent, a scholar at the Tri-State Area School Study Council at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, emphasized that “schools should be a sanctuary where parents know their children will be safe.”

A zero tolerance prohibition on staff-student sex would make it clear to school employees that the children in their care were taboo as far as any kind of sexual relationship was concerned. For example, before Utah passed its abuse-of-authority law in 1992, some teachers kept track of female students’ birthdays to schedule their seduction when they reached the age of consent, according to Douglas F. Bates, director of school law, legislation, certification and equity for the Utah Office of Education.

“Even if it’s a 17-year-old sexpot who is the object of so many men’s fantasies, it doesn’t matter. You can go to jail for life,” Bates told Education Week.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News.