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Sexual Misconduct by Teachers

It's hard to know if sex between teachers and students is a new scandal or if it is an old scandal being given new attention ("Predators in the Classroom," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 8). That's because studies are fairly recent, making comparisons impossible.

What we do know, however, is troubling.  Based on a 2004 study of the existing literature of the time by the U.S. Department of Education, 9.6 percent of students surveyed reported unwanted sexual behavior in one form or another from school personnel. Extrapolating from that study would mean that some 4.8 million students of the 50.4 million in public pre-K-12 schools today will be subjected to sexual misconduct by school personnel.

The problem is not limited to public schools.  Private and religious schools have also been implicated, although no study to date has looked exclusively at them.  Since there is no federal registry that lists teachers who have been disciplined or fired over sexual misconduct, the best that can be done is to consult those states that maintain their own criminal bureaus. Occasionally, however, scandals are so outrageous that hard evidence is available.  For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, paid out more than $300 million to victims of teacher sexual abuse and their lawyers.

As long as the 98,300 public schools in the 13,500 school districts are allowed to establish their own policies, I don't see how steps can be taken that completely ensure the safety of students.  No federal law requires states to conduct background checks before hiring or licensing teachers.  I doubt that will ever change as long as local control of education remains sacrosanct.  Some districts have been more proactive in establishing guidelines than others.  But until there is a national policy, we can expect to hear more disturbing news.

But I think it's also important to emphasize the need for due process if a teacher is accused of sexual misconduct.  If a teacher hugs a student, for example, is that teacher crossing the line?  What about other innocent interaction between teachers and students?  The tendency in public education in this country is to overreact. Doing so does not permit justice for either the accused or the accuser.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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