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Why Isn't There a Uniform Process to Prevent Teacher Sexual Misconduct?

There are few things that trigger outrage more than reports about sexual misconduct by teachers ("Four ex-workers at prestigious Mass. boarding school molested students, investigation reveals," New York Daily News, Feb. 22). Although such reports affect public, private and religious schools, it's hard to know for certain the extent of the problem because of the lack of a central database.

What we do know, however, is extremely disturbing.  For example, in May 2016, the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed to pay $88 million to settle sexual misconduct claims filed on behalf of 30 students, involving two elementary school teachers. Over the past four years, the LAUSD has paid out more than $300 million to victims of educator sexual abuse and their lawyers ("Predators in the Classroom," The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 8, 2016). 

Elite private schools are not exempt.  In May 2016, the Boston Globe reported sexual misconduct claims involving more than 200 students in 67 private New England schools over the past 25 years ("Private schools, painful secrets").  Eleven employees moved on to other schools, with at least three accused again.  Religious schools have also been the subject of similar charges.

Part of the reason for this picture is that no federal law requires states to conduct background checks before hiring or licensing teachers. In fact, Mississippi, Louisiana and Tennessee permit local districts to set their own rules on teacher screening. 

Another reason is the reluctance of courts to get involved in matters that are the province of schools officials. In Pell v. Board of Education, the Court of Appeals, New York State's highest court, held that judges should typically defer to education officials who are ultimately responsible for the conduct of their employees ("Why heroin and classroom sex aren't enough to get teachers fired anymore," New York Post, Mar. 1).

When I was teaching in the LAUSD, all teachers in the mammoth district were required to attend a meeting dealing with the law about mandated reporters.  We were told that it was better to err on the side of caution and report any suspicions, however remote they might be.  Confidentiality was assured.  Many teachers at my high school resented the meeting, viewing it as an insult to their professionalism. 

Until the nation's 13,500 school districts are required to follow a uniform process, I believe the scandal will continue.  Even then, there's no guarantee that sexual misconduct will be eliminated.

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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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