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Nationwide Survey Offers Data on Sexual Abuse of Students With Disabilities

Students with disabilities who were sexually abused in school settings were more likely to receive most of their education in self-contained setttings, and slightly more likely to suffer abuse from an adult at the school rather than another student, according to more than 350 people who responded to a web survey on the topic. 

The data were gathered from 352 people who responded to the survey in 2010 and 2011. (The survey was publicized in edweek.org, among other outlets.) The survey responses, which mostly came from parents, caregivers, and professional advocates, were compiled into a report published in the May issue of the Journal of Child Sexual Abuse

The survey respondents do not represent a random sampling of students with disabilities, nor were the reseachers—Stephen J. Caldas, an education professor at Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y., and Mary Lou Bensy, an adjunct professor of special education at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.—able to independently verify the survey respondents. 

However, the responses generally match already-known facts about students with disabilities. The four most populous states were also the top four states represented among survey respondents. The ratio of public to nonpublic students in the survey mirrored the overall population of students in those two systems nationwide. And, similar to other research, slightly more boys (54 percent) were reported as victims than girls. 

Among the information from the survey: 

  • Fifty-three percent of the victims were identified as being from 6 to 13 years old when the abuse occurred. Bensy said that might be linked to the fact that younger children may not understand the social interraction that is a part of sexual abuse. 
  • A majority, 55 percent, said the victim had significant cognitive disabilities, including classifications such as autism, intellectual disability, or multiple disabilities.
  • The most frequent type of abuse, reported among about 68 percent of the survey respondents, was "comments, jokes and gestures" of a sexual nature. Sixty-two percent of respondents reported "pinching, touching, or rubbing." Forced intercourse was reported among 30 percent of respondents.
  •  About 51 percent of victims were reported to be educated in self-contained classrooms. 
  • "Teaching personnel" were identified as the abuser in about 30 percent of the cases. In all, adults—which includes teachers, school administrators, therapists and aides—were identified as the abuser in about 51 percent of the cases. 
  • Thirty-seven percent of the cases reported that the school "started an investigation" after a report of abuse. The second most common response, 24 percent, was that the school "did nothing." 
  • Seventy-five percent of respondents who answered questions about the frequency of abuse said it happened more than once; 35 percent said it happened more than 10 times.

The takeaway for school administrators is that a vulnerable population of young students with severe disabilities faces a great deal of risk, said Bensy, one of the study authors. Schools need to be aware of that dynamic and teach students ways to protect themselves, as well as provide more education for the adults who work with students. Many states have passed or are considering "Erin's Law" legislation that would require sex-abuse prevention training of school personnel and students.

"The main thing we want to accomplish is to protect the most vulnerable in our society from the most dangerous in our society," she said. 

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