Shoring up the safety net

July 19, 2004

QUESTION THE methodology. Dispute the numbers. Parse the semantics. But don't miss the valid points made in a new federal report urging states and schools to work harder at protecting students from sexual abuse by school employees.

Most schools already work hard to safeguard against the few craven adults who would betray their positions of authority to harm a child. In Maryland, for example, every district fingerprints and gets criminal background checks on teacher candidates and other employees. Maryland also maintains a list of teachers who have lost their certifications -- 41 for sexual misconduct since 1994, two so far this year. The names are also logged in a national database run by the states' school certification officials, to prevent offenders from finding work in schools elsewhere.

However, there are weaknesses in the safety net, which should be drawn tighter to protect staff and students alike, officials of the Maryland and national databases, and the federal report's author, said in interviews last week.

Maryland largely relies on local school districts to report incidents so action can be initiated to revoke a guilty employee's license to teach, but this follow-up isn't consistent.

Also, some schools are lax about fingerprinting and background checks of the workers and the frequent volunteers for whom state certification isn't required. And there's still a head-in-the-sand reluctance by some parents and school leaders to set and enforce common-sense policies, such as restricting closed-door activities and visits to school employees' homes.

Sadly, it seems to take a rash of scandals to raise awareness, as is happening on the Eastern Shore. Last month, authorities charged a 22-year-old Wicomico Middle School teacher's assistant with 96 counts of sexual assault for allegedly sleeping with six boys ages 12 to 16 in her car and at her home. A 30-year-old Talbot County nurse's aide who was working at Easton Middle School went to prison last month for abusing a 13-year-old student. Also sent to prison last month: a former Snow Hill High School teacher who allegedly fondled one student and sent sexually explicit cell phone text messages to another.

How many such cases are slipping past the safety nets isn't known; they aren't monitored. That's where researcher Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University dared to tread, in a report for the U.S. Department of Education required by the No Child Left Behind Act. Based on the limited studies available, she says, nearly one in 10 students -- or more than 4.5 million children -- are victims of school workers, in incidents ranging from leering to harassing to groping to sex.

Ms. Shakeshaft's findings riled education groups that say her scope was too broad, her numbers too high.

And they may be. But until state and federal education agencies get better at tracking these cases, anyone's guess will be as good as Ms. Shakeshaft's, and information needed to help improve schools' precautions will be elusive.

The best prevention is vigilance; more is needed.

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