Can you trust your school to investigate sexual abuse?
Thursday, July 21, 2011
If schools hear that Uncle Joe or Fred the Handyman is molesting a student, alarms will sound, mandatory reporting policies will pounce into action and the powers that be will galvanize to prosecute the perp.
But, if that abuser is a teacher, school administrators may not be so quick to set the criminal justice process in motion, says Terri Miller, an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of teachers.
Miller is the president of the volunteer organization Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation (SESAME), the only organization nationwide with a mission to shine a light on what the group says is an overlooked "epidemic" of molestations by people in their schools-teachers, coaches, principals and janitors.
"The sad truth is parents simply can't trust schools to follow mandatory reporting guidelines when it involves one of their own," Miller says. "This is something that is going to put them under a cloud of shame and humiliation."
Joe Klest, a Chicago personal injury attorney who specializes in representing families whose children are victims of teacher sex abuse, says he's handled as many as 400 cases over two decades in practice.
Klest gets a couple of calls about predatory educators every week, he says. Most of them are parents of tweens and young teens.
"It's much more common than anybody thought," he says.
A parent who suspects sexual abuse at school will do well to make the first report to police, not school officials, Klest and Miller both say.
"If the school gets the first interview with the counselor or principal, they may actually use that statement to discredit the victim's account," Miller says.
Klest recently landed the largest civil sexual abuse verdict in Illinois history and one of the largest in the nation, when a jury awarded $28 million in punitive and compensatory damages to Larry Snyder, who turned to panhandling to support a heroin habit he used to dull the pain of prolonged sexual abuse when he was 12.
Snyder's abuser, Michael Kenny, was a family friend, not a coach or teacher. But news that Kenny was coaching children's sports prompted Snyder to file suit.
"The perpetrators will groom the victims to think they are consenting, when in fact, we know minors are not legally capable of consenting," Klest says.
A student often carries that feeling of guilt and self-blame into adulthood, he says.
"They grow up feeling they have engaged willingly in something they feel is wrong," he says. "That's how they get messed up."
A spokesman for Chicago Public Schools would not directly address SESAME's charge that schools don't adequately investigate sexual misconduct reports.
"We take these matters very seriously when they are brought to our attention and act on them as appropriate within the policy and allowing for due process," Frank Shuftan, with the CPS office of communications, wrote in an email response to questions, accompanied by a 45-page policy on employee discipline and due process.
Even if many sexual assaults by teachers go unprosecuted, it seems like another Chicago area school sex abuse scandal is making headlines every time we open the newspaper:
In January, Plainfield North High School dance and gymnastics coach Ashley M. Blumenshine, 27, was charged with criminal sexual abuse after police say she allegedly had sex with a 16-year-old student in a vehicle behind Kohl's in Plainfield.
In April, Angelica Rangel, 24, a Spanish teacher at Nazareth Academy in La Grange Park, was charged with criminal sexual assault for allegedly having sex eight to 10 times with an underage student after authorities found photos of him and Rangel together in her bath tub. That month, Manuel Reyes, 55, a third-grade teacher at a Round Lake Beach elementary school, was charged with sexually abusing four children, police say.
In May, West Aurora High School band director Stephen P. Orland was accused of having sexual contact on multiple occasions with two students and a Joliet Central High School teacher resigned after the district investigated a rumor alleging he had sexual affairs with students.
In June, Darrell Stephenson, a 24-year-old volleyball and soccer coach and former student teacher at Aux Sable Middle School in Joliet, accused of having sexual contact with a 12-year-old boy, was slapped with four additional counts of child pornography.
Still, Miller says, the cases that make news are the proverbial tip of the mug sheet.
As many as 5 million students have been sexually assaulted by teachers, according to a 2004 congressional report, "Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature," the latest information available.
"We have approximately 5 million children suffering and no one is calling for an investigation, for any kind of data to be collected to find out why that many children are being hurt by teachers," she says. "This is an epidemic."
Rachel Zimmerman is a counselor with Project Shield, a Chicago sexual assault support center, who leads workshops in boundaries and reporting sexual misconduct for teachers and camp counselors. Teachers should never meet with students behind closed doors, she says. They should only get together in rooms with windows or open doors.
Parents should view any kind of private communication outside the classroom as a warning sign, she says. Patterns of coming in early or staying after school, getting rides home or bringing home presents or prizes that not all students get are reasons for suspicion.
"Any private interactions can be red flags that cry 'Pay attention to me,'" Zimmerman says. "Few of these student-teacher relationships start out being inappropriate, but they gradually become more abusive."
Social media such as Facebook is further blurring boundary lines between students and teachers, experts agree.
Zimmerman sees any Facebook friending between students and teachers as inappropriate. A forum where students see photos of teachers in their private lives, maybe even in romantic situations, at parties or drinking, is a dangerous interaction, she says.
"First you're friending somebody, next you're sharing personal information, then you're hanging out together," Zimmerman says. "It's a very slippery slope."
If a teacher wants to use social media for class communication, the educator should create a separate class page, she says.
In the aftermath of the Blumenshine incident at Plainfield North, counselors who came to the school to help classmates deal with the scandal talked about social media ushering in a "power shift" between adolescents and adults.
"Now, they look at teachers, clergy, policemen and politicians and they are used to seeing real people who are capable of making poor moral decisions," says Kirby Strohm, a licensed clinical social worker and clinical director for the Therapeutic Academic Program at Plainfield Academy.
Victims and survivors
The typical reaction to a female teacher having an illegal sexual relationship with a teenage boy is to minimize damage to the boy.
"When I was in high school, we all knew which guys were sleeping with which teacher and we all laughed about it," Klest says.
The single moment that can make the difference between a victim and a survivor is how the first person to hear about it reacts, advocates say.
"If the parent says 'Oh, no, that can't be true. He's such a nice man,' that just increases the pain and damage," Zimmerman says.
"If they say 'I believe you, we'll work through this, that sets the stage for recovery."
Robyn Monaghan is a frequent contributor at Chicago Parent and a freelance writer living in Plainfield.