A Day In The Life Of Scott

If it can't be expressed in figures, it is not science; it is opinion

Sexual Abuse in Education

By: Trina Myles, Terri-Lynn Meade and Scott Oosterom


In education, there are often dilemmas that teachers need to keep in mind while they are teaching. One false move on the part of the student or the teacher, and said teacher could find themselves in the middle of a court dispute and a potential loss of the right to set foot in a classroom again. The purpose of this paper is to examine one of the most provocative issues teachers might have to deal with during their career, sexual abuse. The Association of California School Administrators (McGrath, 1994) explicitly defines sexual abuse in an education setting as:

Any behavior by an adult directed at a student that is intended to sexually arouse or titillate the adult or the child. The behavior includes touching parts of the body, including breasts, genitals, or buttocks, as well as exposure of the genitals, verbal propositions, or conversations of a sexual nature. (p. 28)

The involvement of teachers in sexually abusing students and vice versa is not typically a concern people have when they send their child to school. This, at first blush, may seem to be accurate here in Newfoundland and Labrador, however, this paper will focus on some astonishing prevalence statistics from Canada, the United States, and the legal and moral implications these have for today’s teachers.

This paper will also discuss the roles of teachers in reporting such incidents of sexual abuse, whether they take place in school, out of school, and whether or not a teacher is involved. Since teachers act as an agent of the state, we have to do our part to ensure the utmost of safety for the students in our classrooms. There are, however, many instances when it is the teachers or administrators putting the students’ learning environment at risk. How teachers are dealt with in the eyes of the law will also be discussed at length within this document. The paper will conclude with a discussion on the protection of students from involvement in sexual abuse. While there is often no way of others knowing it takes place, or predicting that it will take place, there are precautions administrators can take to reduce the risk to the students in their institution and signs that other teachers and parents can watch for if they suspect it is taking place.

Prevalence and Statistics

Generally, when parents send their children to school in the mornings they do so with the belief and faith that the school is a safe haven. The parents hear of situations on the local news about teachers in another city, province or country becoming sexually involved with their students, meanwhile they continue to believe that their children’s school is still safe because “that sort of thing would never happen around here.” While we, as teachers and administrators, hope that this sort of thing does not happen around here, we can never be too cautious. In recent years, the media has been very quick to inform the masses about sex offenders in various areas. Unfortunately, the offenders that are not reported or go unnoticed are those that the children are closest to and directly associated with on a daily basis, teachers.

The sad reality is that sexual abuse by educators or other school employees is far more prevalent than we would like to believe. Mary Jo McGrath (1994) of California is an attorney who has worked at representing school boards; she stated that 40% of her cases involving school-employee discipline, over 18 years, have involved sexual misconduct. Additionally, she reports that in a study involving more than 1600 students between the eighth and 11th grade, approximately 25% of females and 10% of males said they were sexually harassed or abused by school employees.

A special report released by The Heartland Institute (Clowes, 1999) looked at 244 cases ranging from single assaults to longer-term sexual relationships. More than 70% of the accused school employees were teachers: 80% of whom were male, 20% female, the ages ranging from 21 to 75. In terms of the victims, some 66% of those who were abused or harassed by a teacher were girls. The student-victims ranged from kindergarten-aged to high school seniors, with the majority being between 14 and 18 years of age.

Though these statistics are American, there have been cases of teachers sexually abusing students in Canada, and even here in Newfoundland. MacKay and Sutherland (1992) have discussed several cases of Canadian teachers who, allegedly, were sexually involved with students. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada (2002) the Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse and Neglect (CIS) for 1998 identified teachers in only 4% of cases, the remaining 96% being family, step parents, siblings, and other people placed in positions of trust with the victims. The CIS also states that boys are more likely to be abused by teachers than are girls. These statistics are not believed to be accurate, as it is likely that the vast majority of sexual abuse survivors have not reported such incidents to the authorities.

Implications for Teachers and Students

For us, as teachers, these statistics are somewhat alarming. Even though Canadian statistics are more pleasing to the eye, sexual abuse by teachers is still occurring and therein lies the problem that needs to be solved. In today’s litigious society teachers, male teachers in particular, need to take extra precautions when they are teaching. Avoiding any unnecessary contact with the students can help to eliminate the possibility of ending up with allegations of sexual misconduct. Simply being aware of the prevalence of this issue should be enough to do anything to avoid becoming a statistic.

There are implications for the students too, particularly if they are in an awkward position with a teacher. The victimized students are often sworn to secrecy and isolated from other students. McGrath (1994) says:

A young victim knows, at some level, that his or her experiences do not fit the norm. The child may think, “There’s something wrong with me” or even “I am evil. Or he or she may think, “I am more mature than my classmates. I don’t need them. I need this adult who really understands me. The student is likely to fear the consequences of the sexual conduct being exposed and may have great difficulty trusting an investigator and saying what happened. (p. 29)

This makes the overall experience for the student that much more difficult, leaving the child emotionally crippled for life, or even leading to attempts at suicide (Clowes, 1999).

The Role of the Teacher in Detecting and Reporting Sexual Abuse

Detecting sexual abuse

In order for teachers to be able to detect sexual abuse, they have to become familiar with the indications or signs of this abuse. Suspicions may arise when there is a continuing trend in a particular student’s behavior (Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers Association, 2004). It is important for teachers to remember, however, that often the signs may be due to other stressors in a child’s life which may produce similar symptoms as those of sexual abuse (Lumsden, 1991). Teachers should not automatically jump to the conclusion that sexual abuse is occurring just because a child shows some of the signs. Educators who abuse children in the school themselves may display behaviours that indicate that they are engaging in such acts. Therefore, it is also important for teachers to also be knowledgeable of these signs.

Several emotional and behavioural difficulties can be observed in children who are being sexually abused. Students who are being sexually abused may persistently and inappropriately engage in sexual play with themselves, peers, or toys (Lumsden, 1991). Lumsden also suggests these students may show great knowledge of sexual behaviour through such activities as drawing. This knowledge is the kind that is too advanced for their age. Other signs that may indicate sexual abuse include: poor peer relationships, over-aggressiveness, and anxiety (Tower, 1984). Some students may become withdrawn and suddenly stop participating in school activities (Lumsden, 1991). An unusual decline in school performance, as well as being reluctant to change clothes for gym class or not even taking part in these classes may be other potential signs of sexual abuse (Lumsden, 1991). Lumsden also states that sexually abused children may say such things as, “I’m afraid to go home,” and may always arrive to school early and leave late.

Some indicators of sexual abuse are physical. The sexually abused child or adolescent may wear torn or bloodstained clothing to school and may suffer from itching and pain in the genital areas (Tower, 1984). Such students may be seen scratching their genital areas or fidgeting in their seats. They may also have difficulties walking or sitting down in their seats due to the pain. Students who are being sexually abused may also suffer from headaches, stomach problems, and frequent vomiting (Tower, 1984).

Not all cases of sexual abuse occur outside of the school environment. Sometimes, the educators in the school may sexually abuse a student. According to Goorian (1999), adult abusers frequently give off warning signs that may indicate that they are abusers. One sign may be overly affectionate behaviour, such as prolonged hugging and touching (Goorian, 1999). Educators who are the abusers may tell sexual jokes and engage in such non-professional behaviour (Goorian, 1999). According to Goorian, these educators may have contact with students during after school hours and may be known for their dedication in doing extra work with students and in helping out with extracurricular activities. Such behaviours may indicate possible abuse by the educator; however, it is important for teachers who become suspicious to realize that these are possible indications, and that not all adults who display these behaviours are sexual abusers.

Reporting sexual abuse

Teachers must be satisfied that they have detected sexual abuse before reporting it. It is important for teachers to obtain as much information as possible about a particular situation and it should be documented (Tower, 1984). For example, every time a student attends class wearing bloodstained clothing, teachers should write down the date and details such as where the stains are. According to Tower (1984), teachers should always analyze the data that they collect. They should do this to make sure that the behaviours that they are observing are likely due to sexual abuse. They should try to observe the student with their parents and talk to other school professionals to see if they have any suspicions of sexual abuse (Towers, 1984). Teachers may also want to analyze their suspicions about their colleagues abusing students. Analyzing and consulting with other school professionals may validate teacher suspicions. In cases where the student discloses to the teacher that they are being sexually abused, no such analysis is necessary.

It is mandatory for teachers to report any suspected or revealed cases of sexual abuse. All educators are expected by law to report such cases, whether or not the abuse is occurring or occurred on school grounds (Tower, 1984). Section 15 of the Child, Youth and Family Services Act, holds all educators in Newfoundland responsible for immediately reporting the situation if they have information that makes them believe a student may need protection (Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers Association, 2004). The suspicion has to be reported to a director, social worker, or a peace officer, and a failure to report may result in such punishment as a fine not more than ten thousand dollars or imprisonment for a term not more than six months, or even both (Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers Association, 2004). When the report is made, the government and social services intervenes and takes over the case. Unless the report was made without malicious intent, the teacher involved with such a situation is protected under the Child, Youth and Family Services Act from civil liability (Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers Association, 2004).

After the report is made, the teacher and the student involved may be interviewed by a social worker (Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers Association, 2004). This will usually take place in school and will allow the social worker to obtain as much detail and information as possible. Section 17(2) of the Child, Youth and Family Services Act gives the social worker the responsibility of informing the parents of the student about the interview (Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers Association, 2004). Therefore, it is important for educators not to inform these parents since it is not their responsibility. It is very unlikely that that the educator that reported the situation will have to go to court. If they do have to attend as a witness, they may be asked to leave the room after their testimony since juvenile court sessions are closed with only the legal and significant people present (Tower, 1984).

When the Abuser is an Educator

The very thought of a teacher committing sexual assault against one or more of their students is disturbing and difficult to comprehend. The Supreme Court of Canada held in 1981 that “the standard of care to be exercised in providing for the supervision and protection of students for whom they are responsible is that of the careful or prudent parent.” (Green, 2004). In this position of trust, a teacher is granted permission by parents to protect children and transmit the vital aspects of our culture so they can lead a stable and functional life in society. Unfortunately, some teachers use their authoritative power and position of trust to sexually manipulate students, satisfying their own needs, rather than meeting those of the student.

A trust betrayed

A study carried out by Shakeshaft (2003) revealed that teachers who sexually abuse children in elementary school are often one of the people that the students most like and that parents trust most. Shakeshaft said that most sexual abusers in schools are considered the best teachers and are highly distinguished. In fact, the characteristics that make someone a good teacher are the same characteristics that make the person successful in getting close to the students to abuse them (Hendrie, 1998). At the middle and high school level, Shakeshaft (2002) noted the offender may or may not be an outstanding teacher and the abuse is less premeditated. These acts most often occur because of bad judgement or abuse of privilege, but are wrong nonetheless.

Forms of sexual abuse

Shakeshaft and Cohan (1995) identified three forms of sexual abuse: visual, verbal, and physical. They found that verbal abuse occurred most often in the classroom and included telling the females they had “nice legs”. Visual and physical abuse, it seemed, often took place after school, outside of school facilities and included showing students pornographic images, and fondling, respectively (Shakeshaft & Cohen, 1995).

The majority of sexual abuse by teachers, regardless of the type, occurs in the schools, in empty classrooms, hallways, or even in a closet attached to an on-going class (Shakeshaft, 2002).

Offender and victim profile

A study carried out by Moulden, Wexler and Firestone (2005) indicated that the majority of teachers involved in a sexual offence are male with an apparent age of 32 years, and is single. They indicated that the primary motive for 99% of the offenders was sexual gratification. It seems, the male offender is equally likely to offend against male and female students who have an apparent age of 12 years. They indicated the majority of victims were in school when the offence took place. The acts committed most often were fondling, masturbation and kissing, where neither the victim’s nor the offender’s clothing was removed (Moulden, Wexler & Firestone, 2005).

Effects of sexual abuse

The unfortunate issue here is that abusers have a good chance of never being discovered or, if revealed, receiving only minimal penalties (Shakeshaft, 2002). The victim on the other hand may suffer the effects of abuse well into adulthood, with the majority never fully recovering (Shakeshaft, 2002). Victims preyed upon by their teachers experience trouble sleeping, loss of appetite and perform less well academically (Shakeshaft, 2002). Shakeshaft noted the majority of victims are left with feelings of embarrassment and low self worth. Finkelhor and Hashimma (2001), have stated that victims experience the same sense of betrayal and shame associated with incest when abused by teachers since the ‘in loco parentis’ relationship has been sexualized.

Peace of mind

It is important to understand that most educators do not abuse children. The small proportion of teachers who do, most often, have targeted many students throughout their career, resulting in the number of teachers who abuse to be far lower than the number of students who are abused (Shakeshaft, 2002).

Schools are required to provide a safe and healthy learning environment for both students and teachers. Teachers are expected to transmit cultural norms and values to students, and their behaviour acts as a model for students (Timmerman, 2003). Frequent sexual advances by teachers in the classroom, may be interpreted by students as more or less normal behaviour (Timmerman, 2003). Therefore, it is essential to address inappropriate teacher behaviour and the impact of such unprofessionalism on school culture (Timmerman, 2003). Likewise, teachers must also step in when a student is being harassed by a peer. This is essential in order to set the theme that sexual harassment, or harassment of any kind for that matter, will not be tolerated in the classroom. Schools must implement policies to prevent and battle against sexual intimidation (Timmerman, 2003). This is especially the case with school boards as they can be, and often are, held vicariously liable for the actions of their employees that result in causing harm or damage to an individual (Green, 2004).

The greatest hurdle to overcome in reducing the prevalence of sexual abuse in schools is our reluctance to believe it of those we know and trust (Skinner, 2001). The persistent stereotype of the abuser as a stranger precludes us from employing policies that will protect the innocent and vulnerable student (Skinner, 2001). We as teachers find it hard to believe that someone among us could commit such unspeakable acts.

Protection of Students

The safety of students when they are in school is of the utmost concern to parents. As quoted by Clowes (1999), and as most parents would agree, “[their] children are sent to school to be educated not to be abused by the person [they are] entrusting them with,” (p 2).

In Canada, the Criminal Code outlines several indictable offences relating to sexual abuse toward students of all ages. Section 150(1) protects children who are under the age of 14 and who cannot lawfully give consent for any sexual activity. This section also states that the abuser cannot claim as a defence that the child was over the age of 14 at the time of the alleged incident unless it is determined that he or she took the reasonable steps to determine the child’s age.

Section 153(1) reads:

153. (1) Every person who is in a position of trust or authority towards a young person or is a person with whom the young person is in a relationship of dependency and who

(2) for a sexual purpose, touches, directly or indirectly, with a part of the body or with an object, any part of the body of the young person, or

(b) for a sexual purpose, invites, counsels or incites a young person to touch, directly or indirectly, with a part of the body or with an object, the body of any person, including the body of the person who so invites, counsels or incites and the body of the young person,

is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years or is guilty of an offence punishable on summary conviction.

(2) In this section, “young person” means a person fourteen years of age or more but under the age of eighteen years.

As indicated by Anderson (1996), section 153 was added to the criminal code to protect young people who were in positions of potential vulnerability. This vulnerability arising from a breach of trust held by a person who is responsible for holding a particular duty of care and authority towards that young person. Section 153 essentially states that anyone in a position of trust and authority over a young person, like a teacher, is prohibited from engaging in any sexual activities outlined above with that person.
Ontario, the government recently introduced the Student Protection Act, 2002. This came after a review of previous events leading to the conviction of a Sault Ste. Marie teacher for sexually assaulting 13 students over 21 years. The Honourable Sydney Robins wrote the report; it states a clear definition of sexual abuse and recommends policies and procedures to prevent sexual assault, harassment and violence in schools. The act builds upon protection that already exists in the Criminal Code and the Child and Family Services Act (Canada NewsWire, 2002).

To enhance the safety of the schools in Ontario the government has implemented a number of initiatives based on the Act. The first of these initiatives is a provincial model for a Local Police/ School Board Protocol that requires schools and police officials to work together in development of these programs. In addition, regular criminal background checks on persons who are in constant association with students will also be a requirement. Funding will be provided on an annual basis for prevention education to teachers and students on issues of violence and a new elementary school curriculum to inform children about personal safety in terms of abuse and sexual harassment in relationships (Canada NewsWire, 2002).

When it comes to the safety of the students, education on such issues as sexual abuse and harassment is the students’ greatest defence system. If the students are knowledgeable, they will know how to, or at least be able to avoid unwelcoming circumstances. In time, if they have not already done so, it is likely that other provinces will follow behind Ontario and develop their own Student Protection Acts, outlining protocols and guidelines for the guarantee of student safety.

It is difficult, if the teacher has not been a previous offender, for them to not be hired. Most jurisdictions require the background criminal records check, but again, this is only useful if the person has anything on their record. Unfortunately, many cases against teachers go unnoticed and unreported because the teachers are well liked by students and colleagues, and when an allegation arises, no one believes the student (Clowes, 1999). Fortunately, in Canada most jurisdictions are more than willing to share information with other jurisdictions in order to maintain the safety of the students. J. Delaney (personal communication, June 7, 2005) stated that local police detachments and RCMP across the country have developed the National Sex Offender Registry (NSOR), a database of registered sex offenders. The NSOR is continuously updated and will prevent teachers from being hired if there is any sexual misconduct on their records because their profile is regularly updated for the duration of their sentence. Even under this system a teacher who loses his/ her teaching license in one province but holds a license in another, may slip through the cracks and be hired in the other province. Outside of Canada, however, the laws vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. A sexual misconduct action that is a federal offense in Canada may be perfectly legal in another jurisdiction in the United States (Clowes, 1999).

Perhaps along with each of the aforementioned concepts, one of the primary means of protecting students in Canada is a duty to report, which as previously discussed can result in the teacher being fined if there is a failure to report any suspected cases. In the case of sexual abuse, it is better for a teacher to report a suspicion than to let slide, a possible case of misconduct and exploitation.


In summary, sexual abuse in schools is far more prevalent than most people are aware. The statistics for Canada, however less dramatic than those for the United States, should, for their sheer existence, still be a concern. As educators, it is our responsibility as agents of the state to help reduce the incidence of sexual abuse. In order to do this, teachers must be aware of particular characteristics to help identify students who are at risk of, or are being abused. Teachers and students alike must be cognizant that abusers are more likely to be someone they know and trust rather than a complete detached stranger. Finally, the goal of teachers is to provide a standard of care toward students that reflect the accepted legal and moral statutes of society.


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