Abuse reports in public schools are wake-up call

WASHINGTON – A recent series by The Associated Press illustrating the “widespread” extent of sexual abuse in the nation’s public schools and the failure of those in authority to stop it is a serious wake-up call for the nation say some officials.

“The results are shocking, real and, sadly, not surprising,” said Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis about the three-part AP series on abuse published in late October.

He praised the wire service for doing a “a huge service to the nation by undertaking and publishing this study,” but added that the series alone is “just the first step.”

The archbishop was chairman of what was then the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse from 2002-05. In June 2005 the bishops voted to raise the ad hoc body to a standing committee and renamed it the Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People. It is currently chaired by Bishop Gregory M. Aymond of Austin, Texas.

In a column published in the Nov. 1 edition of The Catholic Spirit, his archdiocesan newspaper, Archbishop Flynn said he would like to see a comprehensive study of sexual abuse in public schools similar to the studies conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice for the U.S. Catholic Church.

He also urged the groups that worked with the church after the clergy abuse scandal broke in 2002 to “dedicate their time and resources on the deeply entrenched problem of sexual abuse in our public schools.”

The AP reports were based on a seven-month investigation of school districts in all 50 states. According to the series, more than 2,625 educators lost their teaching credentials or were sanctioned for sexual misconduct from 2001-05.

The report said school districts and individual school officials have done little to address the problem of abuse. It stated that most instances of abuse are not reported and when they are, abusers are often quietly let go to avoid scandal. According to the report, 90 percent of offenders are male.

The stories reveal that although efforts have been made to “stop individual offenders,” there is a “deeply entrenched resistance toward recognizing and fighting abuse.”

“In case after case the AP examined, accusations of inappropriate behavior were dismissed,” it said, referring to legal loopholes that can keep sexual misconduct records of teachers secret and inconsistent methods of reporting abuse in schools across the country.

The report compared the level of abuse in schools to “sex abuse scandals in other institutions” including the Catholic Church. It noted that “clergy abuse is part of the national consciousness after a string of highly publicized cases,” and in comparison, it said abuse in schools, “until now,” has gone largely unnoticed.

“Beyond the horror of individual crimes, the larger shame is that the institutions that govern education have only sporadically addressed a problem that’s been apparent for years,” the report said.

The AP report is extensive, but it did not break the story about abuse in public schools.

A 2004 report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education and presented to Congress estimated that almost 10 percent of public school students, about 4.5 million children, have been abused by public school employees or adult volunteers.

The study, “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature,” was prepared by Charol Shakeshaft, when she was a professor at Hofstra University in New York. Currently she is the chair of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Shakeshaft told Catholic News Service Oct. 29 that she hoped the AP report would shed more light on sexual abuse in schools, but she also said the data alone cannot make an impact unless it prompts a nationwide focus on eradicating abuse.

Unfortunately, she said she does not see “educational organizations or the federal government lining up to figure out a plan,” to deal with the issue.

Shakeshaft noted that data from her study and the AP report shows that sexual abuse is not an isolated problem within the church as often portrayed in the media.

Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the U.S. bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, likewise said the report validates that sexual abuse is a “societal issue.”

“The church has taken an aggressive stance to help children in her care,” in Catholic schools and religious education and parish programs, she said, citing the measures taken since the U.S. bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002.

Across the country, in accordance with the charter, safe environment programs require screening for all adults in contact with children and training for adults and children in how to spot abuse and report it.

Richard Dangel, president and CEO of Praesidium, a Texas-based organization that provides abuse-prevention training programs for churches, schools and other organizations that serve children and youths, said that what the Catholic Church has done in recent years to prevent sexual abuse “is astonishing.”

“They have gotten the problem above board, heightened awareness of it and become leaders in prevention,” he said, referring to the required training programs and screening processes for church-sponsored programs.

Dangel told CNS Oct. 31 that although he was not surprised by the AP report, he found it disheartening that so many of the reported abuse incidents could have been prevented.

He said the series echoed what he frequently encounters when abuse cases come to light – “repeated warning signs that go unheeded.”

After abuse cases are publicized, he said people frequently admit that they thought there was something unusual about the way the accused perpetrator behaved.

“Wake up America,” is Dangel’s response. People need to be vigilante, he said, in recognizing warning signs of inappropriate behavior and reporting it.

“The more we can do as a society and culture to get this above board and stop it,” he said, “the better off we’ll be.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.