Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Teacher Predators And The Resistance Against Taking Systematic Action

An anonymous commenter pointed me to this article on teacher sex abuse which included the following:

The AP discovered efforts to stop individual offenders but, overall, a deeply entrenched resistance toward recognizing and fighting abuse. It starts in school hallways, where fellow teachers look away or feel powerless to help. School administrators make behind-the-scenes deals to avoid lawsuits and other trouble.

And in state capitals and Congress, lawmakers shy from tough state punishments
or any cohesive national policy for fear of disparaging a vital profession. That only enables rogue teachers, and puts kids who aren't likely to be believed in a tough spot.

The core problem for many people is denial. They can deal with the concept of individuals who step so far over the line that there is no deniability, but they need to view them as "rogue" teachers and not as part of a bigger problem within schools and within our societies.

The upside of acknowledging a systematic problem is that means acknowledging that there are systematic solutions and systematic preventative measures that can be taken. But there cannot be a systematic and well-designed response when the problem is denied or dismissed as being caused by "rogue" educators.

There is no teacher who is more "rogue" yet in some ways non-threatening than the current "it" girl for sexually abusive teachers, Mary Kay Letourneau. Since approximately 90% of the educator offenders are men, she is part of the smallest set of rogue educators. Her face and her marriage to her victim matches the description often given to this problem: Sexual misconduct.

Honestly, sexual misconduct is two teachers having consensual sex in the break room. The problem for students isn't educator sexual misconduct, it is groping, harassment, stalking, sexual abuse, rape and occasionally worse.

Just as with sexual violence away from schools, part of the problem is the normalization of predatory sexual behavior. This is often combined with victim blaming. If only we could teach children to never have crushes on their teachers there would -- according to this worldview -- be very few educator offenders.

When I was in high school, one of the coaches refused to follow in the tradition of having the cheerleaders kiss him during the pep rally. I'm sure some called him a prude, but the tradition supported unclear boundaries between male coaches and cheerleaders. Most teachers would never exploit that lack of clarity but a few would do so, rationalizing away responsibility for their actions every step of the way.

Much of the grooming process in schools with unclear boundaries could happen in front of other students, teachers and school staff. Because the boundaries are unclear there is no process of response until the situation blows up. So teachers who sense something inappropriate may choose to cope by keeping their concerns to themselves. Students who have never been taught anything about sexual exploitation may start rumors disparaging the student target instead of reporting the teacher.

A systematic response that does not work is demanding that teachers be cold and unfriendly to students in the name of professionalism. This response is basically a raising of the white flag against sex crimes by teachers, other school employees and the public. We must understand that there is a clear difference between healthy mentoring and grooming of potential victims.

Any effective systematic response needs to be as transparent as possible under privacy rules. Without transparency an administrator who doesn't respect boundaries could choose to ignore the reporting of teachers who also don't respect boundaries without being held accountable for doing so. Too many people have the attitude that if the victim wasn't physically restrained or threatened with death that the student is equally responsible and cannot be considered a true victim.

The public needs to accept that a school with a higher number of reported incidents may not be less safe than a school with no reported incidents. If there is a backlash every time a school or school district tries to address the problem, that creates incentive for school officials to revert to denial.

So in any proposed or implimented solution, all of us either contribute to that solution or hinder it by our responses.

For any systematic approach to work at turning schools into sex-crime free zones, it can't only focus on educator criminality, it must also focus on student and volunteer criminality. The entire atmosphere needs to support respecting other people's boundaries.

Effectiveness and panic cannot coexist. Neither can effectiveness and paranoia.

I don't support laws which specifically targets teachers since that can lead to extreme but ineffective laws while ignoring the sexual predators in other positions of trust. Doctors, pastors, therapists to just name a few who can misuse their inherently unequal relationships.

For me a key to protecting innocent teachers and students is a systematic and professional approach to handling all reports of sexual wrongdoing. Sloppy responses, botched investigations and secrecy protect abusive teachers and leave innocent teachers unfairly tainted. There can be no instant judgment where a complaint is deemed "without merit" based on an assessment of the student's character or the popularity of the teacher.

For another take on this story, read Melissa McEwan's post, The So-Called Public School Plague.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 10:08 AM   3 comments links to this post

3 Comments:

At October 26, 2007 7:55 AM, Blogger Sarah said...

This is a wonderful article, and a great addition to the mother daughter blog carnival! You are bringing light to something many parents think just won't happen to their kids.

I believe this is a part of the larger problem of our society sexualizing our kids. The clothes they are being sold, the pop stars who dress up like school girls, and act provocatively, the State of Maine giving Birth Control Pills to 11 year-olds without parental notification. All these things send mixed signals that our children are sexual creatures, and can be treated as adults.

 
At November 04, 2007 6:08 AM, Blogger loonyhiker said...

My husband and I discussed the other day and we both believe that in this day and time, teachers and students should have the same relationship as a boss and an employee. A boss should not go around touching and hugging his employees and the same goes for a teacher. We are preparing them for the real world so maybe we need to act like it. Bosses should not be on the same level as employees so teachers should not be "best friends" to students. This would make the line clearer between students and teachers.

 
At November 16, 2007 6:34 PM, Blogger The Surrendered Scribe said...

Your writing makes it clear as society and parents, we can't stick our head in the sand anymore. This was very educational, thank you.

 

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