As difficult as it might be to accept and understand, abuse of children is occurring at an alarming rate in our nation's schools, daycare centers, camps, and other institutions. Even with state laws that require child abuse reporting and institutional policies that address sexual abuse prevention, identification, and reporting, abuse is not going away. More civil lawsuits are filed with each passing year, and schools and other organizations are not always appropriately responding to this epidemic.
At a school or any institution responsible for protecting the safety of children, the existence of a policy isn't enough. It is evident from my involvement in such cases that when schools have adequate policies that are living documents - supplemented by training and a culture where all reports and rumors are taken seriously -children tend to be better protected. Children are more frequently harmed in a climate where reports of sexual abuse are discouraged, rumors are not taken seriously, and staff training is lacking.
According to a 2014 federal report, U.S. schools are failing to protect students from sexual abuse, and instances of district cover-ups, lack of staff training, and incomplete teacher background checks are not uncommon. The U.S. Government Accountability Office determined that K-12 schools lack a systemic approach to preventing and reporting sexual abuse of students, despite longstanding evidence of widespread sexual abuse at the hands of educators. A previous federal report had estimated that 9.6 percent of students are sexually abused by school personnel. A school district may be liable for damages under Title IX if it fails to take action to stop known sexual abuse and harassment.
Based on my experience as an expert witness in school and institution administration, virtually every school district in the United States and Canada is, at some point, likely to hear rumors or receive a complaint about the sexual abuse of a child by a staff member. The safety of children depends on several elements. One such element is an adequate response by the administration, including prompt and adequate investigation and taking appropriate action to protect children from harm.
The professional standard of care requires that those responsible for the safety of children respond appropriately when there is an observation, report, or rumor of inappropriate sexual behavior between an adult and a child in a school. For example, when a librarian sees a teacher kissing a student in the gym, the librarian's observation provides clear notice that the teacher is breaching the professional code of conduct and school policy. Any reasonable staff member would also conclude that it is more likely than not that the teacher and student are engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship. The librarian's responsibility would be to report the observation immediately to her supervisor, usually the building principal, and to report the behavior to the state agency that investigates allegations of child abuse.
Likewise, any observation, report, or rumor that children in school may be engaged in inappropriate sexual behavior with each other warrants an immediate response to protect children from harm. In some circumstances, student-on-student sexual behavior will be considered typical depending on the age of the children. For example, two 5-year-olds may expose themselves to each other with no intention of sexual abuse. On the other hand, if a vulnerable child with a disability is sexually touched by a nondisabled child of the same age, it might be considered abuse because of the imbalance of power between the two children. This also might be true when a much older child is sexually active with a younger child. Age, in this situation, creates the imbalance of power.
In Gebser v. Lago Vista Independent School District, (524 U.S. 274 (1998)), the U.S. Supreme Court established standards for school district liability under Title IX when a sexual relationship occurs between a teacher and a student. The court found that a school district will not be liable unless: (1) an appropriate school official has actual knowledge of discrimination; (2) the school official has authority to take corrective action to address the alleged discrimination: (3) the school official fails to adequately respond; and (4) the inadequate response amounts to deliberate indifference.
In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, (526 U.S. 629, 119 S.Ct. 1661, 143 L.Ed.2d 839 (1999)), the Supreme Court established that a school district may be liable for damages under Title IX if it fails to take action to stop known student-on-student harassment. In Davis, the alleged conduct of the perpetrator student was outrageous, and despite repeated complaints of sexual harassment over five months, the student was not disciplined. In fact, the victim was not even allowed to change classes to escape the harassment of her classmate. Moreover, the board of education had not instructed its personnel on how to respond to peer harassment and had not established a policy on the issue.
Actual notice. Since the Davis decision, there has been a pattern of cases granting summary judgment to school districts on the basis of insufficient evidence of actual notice. However, the issue of what constitutes sufficient notice to the school is not yet settled. For example, in Doe v. School Administration District N. 19 (66 F. Supp. 2d 57 (D. Me. 1999)), it was found that the school had sufficient notice when a substitute teacher met with the principal to report that a female teacher "might be" having a sexual relationship with at least one male student. The principal allegedly told the substitute that she could be "sued for slander for saying those things" and declined to investigate. The court believed this verbal notice was sufficient where the alleged sexual misconduct was severe and where the school community was small (the high school's faculty numbered 15). From the substitute teacher's report, the administrator had a duty to conduct a sufficient investigation and, likely, to file a report with the appropriate child protective service in the state as well.
Insufficient notice was found in Turner v. McQuarter (79 F. Supp. 2d 911 (N.D. Ill. 1999)) where a female basketball player claimed to have been coerced into a sexual relationship with a female coach. Because the student and coach had the same home address, the plaintiff alleged that the university's athletic director knew of the relationship. A district court concluded that it was difficult to imagine under what circumstances the identical addresses would have come to the attention of school officials. In this case, the court determined that unless there is sufficient notice or a report that a sexual relationship was taking place and that the coach and student resided at the same address, it would have been unlikely that the school would have found out on its own.
Deliberate indifference. The adequacy of a school or institution's response once the appropriate officials have actual notice also has been examined. For example, in Kinman v. Omaha Public School District (171 F.3d 607 (8th Cir. 1999)), the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals found that prompt investigation, corrective action, and ultimate termination was a sufficient response by a school district in response to allegations of a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student. After the student graduated, the relationship resumed, and the teacher was terminated for violating the district's policy that prohibited teachers from engaging in sexual relationships with former students within two years of graduation. The court dismissed the Title IX claim.
How various courts respond to the issue of deliberate indifference is illustrated by Flores v. Saulpaugh (115 F. Supp. 2d 319 (N.D. N.Y. 2000)). A student's petition survived the school district's motion for summary judgment because a fact issue existed regarding the administrator's response to the student's complaints. In this case, the student and her parent complained to the principal of a teacher's suggestive behavior toward the student. The principal promised to investigate the matter but did not do so, nor did he notify the Title IX coordinator of the complaint. Harassment, according to the student, continued for about a year after the complaint. In this matter, the court found a fact issue regarding the alleged indifference of the principal's response. The court found that the principal had actual notice, effective at the time the student and her parent made their complaint. The principal also had corrective authority over the teacher. The court ruled that failure to investigate and to notify the Title IX coordinator constituted deliberate indifference, and the continued inappropriate behavior of the teacher may have caused harm to the student.
How should a school respond to rumors of an inappropriate relationship between a child in its care and a staff member? Is a rumor sufficient to be considered notice? Schools can be sidetracked by the "logistics" of the rumor mill, short-circuiting a thorough investigation of what may, in fact, be an actual abusive relationship. For example, when a school principal knows that students are talking about a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student and are saying that the teacher and student have been texting and sending pictures to one another, the school must take these rumors seriously. Taking them seriously - that is, focusing on the alleged behavior as the genesis of the rumors rather than focusing on the way students are communicating (the logistics) - is key. I have seen too many situations where rumors were considered not credible - brushed off as children bullying each other - while an inappropriate relationship went on. It is important that reports of this nature are made to the state child protective agency so that specially trained and experienced individuals can conduct a thorough investigation. School officials are not trained to make a determination as to whether an allegation of sexual misconduct is substantiated or to determine that rumors can be dismissed.
In my practice, I have reviewed and analyzed the issues in numerous civil lawsuits as to whether a school or other agency met the professional standard of care in responding to rumors of sexual abuse. One of these cases involved the Texas City Independent School District in 2004. The district was accused of a breach in the professional standard of care, resulting in the sexual abuse of a preschool child by a classroom aide. This female student, because of her gender, was discriminated against when she was sexually abused. This was cause for a federal lawsuit under Title IX.
As the expert witness, I reviewed the case material, including sworn depositions, policies of the school district, records of the student, and information about the classroom teacher and aide. I determined that the teacher was not trained in the prevention, detection, and reporting of child abuse, including sexual abuse; the aide was hired without a proper background check and was not trained; the teacher allowed the male aide to supervise "bathroom time" with this girl, who had a disability, and the teacher wasn't there to supervise. Another instructional aide in the class admitted having observed physical evidence that caused her to believe that the child was being sexually abused, but she failed to notify anyone about it and the abuse continued.
Although there was a policy in the school that addressed sexual abuse and reporting requirements, it was not implemented. Training was insufficient or nonexistent. The aide did not know how to report her concern. She did not know that she had a duty to report her observations to state child protective services and to the school administrator. The abuse continued until another professional also became concerned, at which time the matter was reported, investigated, and the aide was arrested. It was my opinion that this breach of the professional standard of care was a proximate cause of the girl's abuse. Adequate training and supervision, in my opinion, would have prevented abuse of this child.
Sexual abuse of students is tragic, and its rate of occurrence is unacceptable. Schools and other institutions have a responsibility to protect the children in its care. Beyond policies, a culture of training, supervision, and adequate follow-through on reports of abuse against students is a proactive strategy for reducing the potential for harm to children.
Dr. Edward Dragan, provides education expert consultation for high-profile and complicated cases. As an educator and administrator, he has more than 35 years' experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent and director of special education. He also has served as a state department of education official.
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