Originally published in NYSIR News Summer 2013
NYSIR Forum on Best Practices and Sexual-boundary Ethics
A startling 4.5 million students in U.S. schools are subjected to sexual abuse by teachers and other school employees over the course of their K-12 educations, according to risk management and academic experts, who agree that transparency, professional training and tougher district policies are the most effective ways to curtail what some call a quiet crisis.
“We’re all working together to try to make a difference from several vantage points,” forensic clinical psychologist Glenn Lipson, PhD, declared at a special NYSIR forum on preventing educator sexual misconduct held April 1-2 in Newburgh, N.Y. “We’re trying to be proactive rather than reactive.”
Karla Rhay, PhD, chief administrative officer at Southern California Schools Risk Management, a cooperative effort among school districts in the San Bernardino region, said administrators often “don’t hear the full spectrum of things.” Sexual abuse of students can go beyond teachers and involve coaches, bus drivers, aides, security guards, principals and even counselors.
She and Lipson were co-presenters at the forum, a first-time event designed to bring together professionals with risk management training responsibilities and state government officials who investigate allegations of educator misconduct.
The Three R’s
Lipson, an associate professor and program director at Alliant International University’s California School of Forensic Studies in San Diego, has joined with Rhay to create new online and in-person courses and materials aimed at educating school district employees in ways to recognize and deal with sexual misconduct.
An expert witness who often is asked to testify in sexual misconduct lawsuits filed against school districts across the country, Lipson emphasized that misconduct can be averted through training that revolves around what he called the three R’s – recognizing signs, responding and reporting suspicions.
“Clearly, there’s a misconception (among educators) about the law and how it applies in school,” according to Rhay. When it comes to sexual involvement with older students especially, that misunderstanding of the law and confusion over ambiguous or non-existent district policies often leads educators to conclude that sexual activity with a student isn’t misconduct if it’s consensual. Additionally, a fear of breaching confidentiality may result in school employees choosing to help the victim rather than report the perpetrator.
Forum participants came together with the help of video-conferencing technology that allowed guest speakers from California, Vermont and Nevada to share their knowledge and experience.
Lipson orchestrated interactive presentations by Daniel Shinoff, an attorney from San Diego recognized as a leading authority in school district defense and litigation; Troy Hutchings, Ed.D, from Phoenix, who writes about and develops educational material regarding teacher sexual misconduct; Fred Lane, an attorney from Burlington, Vt., who is an author, attorney, professional speaker and expert witness in the field of computer forensics; and Terri Miller, president of a Nevada-based nonprofit called Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation (S.E.S.A.M.E.).
Hutchings, a former teacher and currently a research chairperson for education with the University of Phoenix, said sexual involvement with students is “a slippery slope that teachers go down. Ironically,” he added, “they’re often the best teachers in the district.” He also pointed out that the education profession doesn’t have a formal code of ethics. “If it did,” he said, “the potential for sexual abuse could be openly addressed.”
Forum participants included state Department of Education officials from New York and Pennsylvania, school risk management professionals from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, NYSIR risk management associates Andrew Graham and David Bloodgood, and NYSIR executive director Lee Gaby.
Stopping it before it starts
“Really, the key here is prevention,” explained Lipson, and that, Miller observed, begins with acknowledgement of the existence and extent of the problem. “Power and authority is used against students,” she said. One teacher can affect a dozen students during his or her career, she added, “maiming them emotionally for the rest of their lives.”
“School boards need to be very much more proactive on this issue,” Shinoff explained. “Do your due diligence when hiring,” he said, by establishing a specific policy regarding letters of recommendation. If an incident of misconduct occurs, he added, bring parents into the loop early to avoid possible charges of a cover-up.
Districts “constantly need to do refreshers and bring it (sexual misconduct) up,” he advised, emphasizing the value of transparency.