Sexual Abuse: When Our Schools Don’t Protect our Children

Michele Borba February 21, 2012 Comments Off on Sexual Abuse: When Our Schools Don’t Protect our Children

In wake of recent scandals we educators need to tune in closer to ensure children’s safety

A guest post by Edward F. Dragan

“In my kindergarten class this morning I saw Frank and Gail leaving the bathroom together. Should I be concerned that something is going on?”

“I saw this fourth-grade kid run out of the boy’s room and down the hall. I didn’t see who he was and just then a little first-grader came out crying and pulling his pants up. Should I tell the principal?”

“Barbara’s mother stopped my office this morning and reported that Coach Bradford made Barbara and other girls uncomfortable out on the field yesterday with some of the words he was using. Is this something I need to report?”

These sceneries and questions are more common than you would think.

Caregivers have a responsibility for the safety of children and to respond when there’s a concern that a child might be sexually abused. But how someone views and responds to these situations can be confusing.

How should the kindergarten teacher react when Frankie and Gail left the bathroom together? Was Gail abusing Frankie? Should the teacher report this to anyone?

What response is reasonable under the circumstance?

Since the 80’s when early childhood professionals became mandated reporters of childhood sexual abuse, training has included how to evaluate children’s sexual behavior in order to differentiate normal things from signs of a problem, which might include the child being sexually abused. It is foreseeable that children do sexual things with other children, and a school or other group care setting must be prepared to respond to these things and to prevent behaviors which can be sexual abuse.

In a school or group care setting staff should be educated about childhood sexuality. They should learn what normal behavior is for a young child so they know when to be concerned. And they should know when the behavior is the sign of a problem.

In the kindergarten classroom scenario it is unlikely that the behavior of the two children means that one is being sexually abused by the other. More likely, they were acting in a way that healthy children behave.

Healthy Children

Healthy children will often:

  • Look at their own bodies and the bodies of others;
  • Touch their genital to explore anatomy and sensation; and,
  • Engage in mutual touching with similar aged friends and cousi

Abusive Behavior

Sexual behavior is defined as abusive among younger children of similar age when there is:

  • Lack of consent – one can’t consent without knowing what is proposed. Cooperation and compliance do not equal consent;
  • Lack of equality – refers to the balance of power and authority. Equality implies that two participants are operating with the same level of power and neither is being controlled by the other either by being older, larger, intellectually more advanced or put in charge by an adult; and
  • Coercion – is a range of pressures used to get someone to do something. Those pressures can be threats, bribes, physical force, etc.

In sexual interactions between healthy very young children there is usually no coercion and no pressure and both children are just involved in play. There is a sense of privacy and the children might be embarrassed and even fearful when discovered by an adult, however both children will react similarly and there is usually the sense that the interaction was fun.

What Should a Teacher Do?

So, what should the teacher do? Using the above information as a guideline for determining appropriate action is a good start.

It doesn’t sound like sexual abuse was taking place in this situation but if the teacher is not comfortable making that call, she should seek the advice of another professional in the school such as the school social worker or a counselor. I think it’s good to contact the parents of both children to let them know what occurred but also give them some information that’s readily available about the sexual behavior of young children. It’s also a good idea for the teacher to supervise the bathroom more closely so that these situations don’t occur in school since they risk misinterpretation.

And if the care giver has reasonable concern or suspicion that a child is being sexual abused that person has a duty, under every state’s law, to report that to the appropriate child protective agency and, in some states, to the police.

What about the teacher who sees a fourth grader running out of the bathroom with a first grader crying and pulling his pants up after him?

In this case the teacher must apply a different standard. A fourth-grader is physically bigger and may have other advantages over a smaller first-grader who may be coerced by the older child into participating in something that the smaller child doesn’t even understand. This is lack of consent. A younger child might be compliant and cooperate with an older child who says “pull your pants down” but not know why she is being asked to do that by the older child. The older child, because of his or her size and the fact that the child is in an older grade, yields more power and authority. It’s also not uncommon in a situation where an older child sexual abuses a younger child for the abuser to threaten the child not to tell or even bribe the child with gifts.

In this case the teacher needs to apply a different standard.

When there is lack of consent, lack of equality and coercion this is sexual abuse and it must be reported to the appropriate state child protective agency usually within 24 hours. It’s my experience that schools might be operating with illegal policies that require an observer of such behavior to report it to the building principal and then the administration will decide what to do next. This is a breach of the professional standard of care and can cause legal problems for the school and for the teacher.

A Real Case

As an expert witness I am often called upon to review the issues of cases such as these and render an opinion as to whether the school administration met the professional standard of care in a specific situation. One such case involved a teacher seeing a fourth-grader leaving the bathroom followed by a first-grader crying and pulling up his pants. The teacher knew the older student who ran away and comforted the younger student and brought him back to his classroom. When she got to the classroom she told his teacher what happened. The classroom teacher did nothing else even though this older student was known to have harasses other younger kids in the bathroom before. Was there reasonable cause to think that this fourth-grader sexually abused the first-grader? Did the teacher follow the school’s policy and the state law regarding reporting her suspicion? It turned out, in this particular case, that she had not and the abusive behavior of the older student toward younger kids went on for several more months.

Advice

My advice is to err on the side of reporting rather than assuming it won’t happen again or it was just kids being kids. Report observations to the appropriate office of child protective services first and then report to the appropriate administrators according to school policy. In the case I described, if the teacher had reported the suspicion of sexual abuse the state agency would have investigated. That alone would likely have prevented further abuse from occurring.

In the wake of the Penn State scandal it is ever more important for school administrators and others to assure that teachers are trained in their responsibilities to be observant, to report and to protect the children in their care.

Dr. Dragan is the owner of Education Management Consulting, LLC and provides education expert witness consultation to attorneys around the country. He is the author of “The Bully Action Guide: How to Help Your Child and Get Your School to Listen” and can be contacted at www.edmgt.com.