Characteristics of School Employee Sexual Misconduct: What We Know from a 2014 Sample

From September 2016­ to January 2017, Magnolia Consulting conducted a study on the implementation of Title IX guidance in school districts that had experienced incidents of school employee sexual misconduct in 2014. As part of the study, researchers conducted a landscape analysis of 459 cases from 2014 originally archived by Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation (S.E.S.A.M.E.), a nonprofit organization dedicated to preventing school employee sexual misconduct, using Google alerts to capture mentions in online media. The analysis sought to identify key characteristics of the schools where cases occurred as well as of offenders and victims. The information presented in this blog post is based on that database.

School employee sexual misconduct refers to sexual abuse (inappropriate or illegal contact) or misconduct (inappropriate communication or other unethical behaviors that may not involve physical contact) by a school employee (a teacher, coach, administrator, volunteer, or other staff member) with a child while caring for that child in a K–12 school setting. As the frequency of media headlines around this topic demonstrates, school employee sexual misconduct is far from uncommon in the United States. While prevalence data are not readily available, data from the year 2000 suggest that approximately one in 10 students will experience sexual abuse or misconduct at the hands of a school employee, ranging from sexual jokes to sexual intercourse, by the time they graduate from high school (American Association of University Women, 2001).

Who are the offenders and victims in school employee sexual misconduct cases?

In an effort to better understand offenders and victims, we analyzed demographic data from cases reported by the media in 2014. There are several limitations to using media reports in this way. Most notably, these cases represent only the tip of the iceberg; many more incidents go unreported to law enforcement and therefore are not publicly reported. Further, no two offenders or victims are the same. However, our sample provides a glimpse into who is typically involved. Additionally, we were able to gather information about the characteristics of schools where school employee sexual misconduct occurred.

Offender characteristics

In our sample, offenders were mostly general education teachers, male, white, and heterosexual, with an average age of 36. Half of the offenders had been the subject of previous allegations of inappropriate relationships with students. Approximately 3 out of 4 offenders used technology to communicate with victims, with mobile devices being the most common form of technology used. A third of offenders had more than one victim; almost half of offenders who had multiple victims (47%) had two victims.

Victim Characteristics

 While media reports tended to protect information about victims, victim age and gender were typically reported in the cases we analyzed. Thus, we know that victims of school employee sexual misconduct were most often female and teenagers. Slightly over half of victims in our sample were female (56%), with an average age of 15.

What are the characteristics of schools where school employee sexual misconduct occurs?

In our sample, schools that experienced incidents of school employee sexual misconduct were most often located in the southern region of the United States. We found that incidents were more frequently reported in public, suburban high schools. Additionally, cases were more common in schools with high percentages of minorities and students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch. Slightly over half (53%) of incidents in our sample occurred off school premises.

Although we were able to glean much information about school employee sexual misconduct from media cases reported in 2014, more reliable reporting about school employee sexual misconduct is needed to better understand who is being affected and to improve tracking of offenders. If you are interested in learning more about our study, please find the full report here. Along with the report, we created an infographic detailing more information about characteristics. Additionally, visit S.E.S.A.M.E.’s website for additional resources and information about school employee sexual misconduct.

References

American Association of University Women [AAUW] (2001). Hostile hallways: The AAUW survey on sexual harassment in America’s schools. Washington, DC: American Association of University Women.

 

School Employee Sexual Misconduct Study Finds K-12 School Districts Fail to Implement Key Elements of Title IX

Charlottesville, VA (Oct. 31, 2017) — An estimated one in ten K–12 students—about 4.5 million children—will experience sexual abuse at the hands of a school employee at some point in their education, according to one study. Yet, a recent Department of Justice–sponsored study conducted by Magnolia Consulting, a Charlottesville-based education research firm, suggests that K–12 school districts might not fully implement federal guidance for preventing and responding to school employee sexual misconduct, even after an incident is reported.

School employee sexual misconduct is covered by Title IX of the educational amendments of 1972, the law most widely known for addressing gender equity in sports. However, the provisions of Title IX reach much further, prohibiting sexual discrimination and sexual harassment of any kind in educational institutions that receive federal funds. Title IX guidance, created by the Department of Education to support schools in implementing the law, requires that school districts have clear, written policies and procedures regarding school employee sexual misconduct; those policies and procedures, the guidance says, should include training to help staff, students, and parents recognize unacceptable behavior and other prevention measures, as well as processes to ensure a quick and effective response to complaints. Under the law, institutions that do not comply with these policy requirements—including K–­12 schools and school districts—can be liable for civil damages if school employees engage in sexual misconduct involving students.

The Magnolia Consulting study focused on implementation of the key elements of Title IX guidance in school districts that had experienced incidents of school employee sexual misconduct. Researchers found that, although school districts reported improvements to some policies and procedures, as well as improvements in awareness, communication, and district leadership, various challenges—including an incomplete understanding of the full requirements of Title IX and the associated guidance—continued to hamper districts’ efforts to comply with Title IX guidance. Representatives from all participating districts reported being unclear about what exactly Title IX requirements were and how they should be implemented. In addition, participants reported various challenges in implementing key elements of Title IX, including difficulty finding model policies, budget limitations, low parent engagement, fear of the consequences of reporting, and poor responses from criminal justice and child welfare agencies when incidents were reported.

According to Magnolia Consulting Senior Researcher Billie-Jo Grant, the principal investigator for the study, poor implementation of policy and prevention efforts may have negative consequences for both prevention and investigation of incidents, leading to long-term effects for victims. “The results of this study show us that more work needs to be done to guide and monitor the implementation of Title IX guidance and keep our students safe at school,” Grant says. “Title IX is only as effective as its implementation by school districts—staff, parents, and students are our eyes and ears for identifying and reporting these cases.”

The report concludes with several recommendations for addressing implementation challenges. School district leaders, researchers say, should review their district’s Title IX policies and implementation efforts, with support from federal and state departments of education, who need to develop model policies, establish accountability measures, and provide high-quality, low-cost training. Sexual misconduct training curricula should be included both in teacher training and in school employee orientation programs and training should be repeated periodically. Finally, policymakers and legislators need to issue parameters to guide education leaders in developing policies and advocate for evaluation, accountability, and funding for research. Researchers can analyze prevalence data to determine whether policies are working and contribute to prevention by analyzing the characteristics of both offenders and particularly vulnerable students.

Magnolia Consulting President Stephanie Wilkerson, who was the co-principal investigator for the study, said, “We see weekly headlines reporting cases of school employees sexually abusing students, and yet there is no national dialogue about what should be done to prevent it. This study emphasizes districts’ need for more effective communication, support, and accountability from federal and state leaders on implementing Title IX elements intended to help prevent school employee sexual misconduct. The protection of students from sexual predators in schools should be an issue we’re talking about; we hope this research study serves as a starting point for that conversation.”

“A Case Study of K–12 School Employee Sexual Misconduct: Lessons Learned from Title IX Policy Implementation” was executed as part of the National Institute of Justice Comprehensive School Safety Initiative, a federal program that awarded $69 million in grants to study the causes and consequences of school violence. Researchers collected data from 92 participants (41 interviews and 10 focus groups), as well as a review of documentation and policies, in five geographically and demographically diverse districts. All five districts experienced an incident of school employee sexual misconduct in 2014; the data were collected in 2016–2017.

The project was supported by Award No. 2015-CK-BX-0009, awarded by the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The findings, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Justice.

For more information, resources, and to read the full report, please visit our Publications and Reporting page.

Questions? Contact Billie-Jo Grant, Ph.D., 805-550-9132 and bgrant@magnoliaconsulting.org