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Sexual Misconduct

Sexual misconduct with a student is the most egregious breach of an educator’s duty to protect students and is a violation of the public’s trust in the educational system.  Every year, cases involving sexual misconduct account for more than half of all disciplinary actions imposed against Pennsylvania educators. This problem is not unique to Pennsylvania.  According to a 2004 report issued by the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 1 in every 10 students nationwide will be subject to sexual misconduct by a school employee sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade. U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary, Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature, Washington, D.C., 2004.

That’s almost 4.5 million students nationwide-enough to fill over 83,000 school buses!  While our understanding of the true extent of sexual misconduct in our schools is still evolving, the actual number of cases is likely to be far higher than the number reported.  According to the same U.S. Department of Education report, only about 5-6% of child sexual abuse both inside and outside of school is reported.      

While you may have heard the term used in other contexts to condemn a variety of acts, within the context of school communities and school employees, the term “sexual misconduct” has a unique and particular legal meaning.  The Educator Discipline Act defines Sexual Misconduct as:

"Sexual misconduct" shall mean any act, including, but not limited to, any verbal, nonverbal, written or electronic communication or physical activity, directed toward or with a child or a student regardless of the age of the child or student that is designed to establish a romantic or sexual relationship with the child or student. Such prohibited acts include, but are not limited to, the following:

(1)  sexual or romantic invitations;

(2)  dating or soliciting dates;

(3)  engaging in sexualized or romantic dialogue;

(4)  making sexually suggestive comments;

(5)  self-disclosure or physical exposure of a sexual, romantic or erotic nature; or

(6)   any sexual, indecent, romantic or erotic contact with the child or student.

As is apparent in the definition, sexual misconduct is a broad term encompassing any behavior designed to establish an inappropriate relationship with a child or student, ranging from inappropriate comments to sexual intercourse.  It is important not to confuse sexual misconduct with sexual abuse.  While the definition of sexual misconduct covers all forms of sexual contact and what is commonly referred to as sexual abuse, it also includes non-sexual behaviors that may lead up to sexual contact.  In addition, while sexual misconduct may involve criminal behavior, the term also captures conduct that, although itself not illegal, is designed to prepare the student for future sexual contact.  For purposes of educator misconduct, the term sexual misconduct refers to a broad set of inappropriate behaviors including sexual abuse of students. 

Sexual abuse or exploitation is an extreme type of sexual misconduct.  It is also a specific category of child abuse.  The precise legal definition of sexual abuse or exploitation can be found in the Child Protective Services Law.  Sexual abuse or exploitation includes any physical, verbal, or visual sexual behavior between an educator and a child or student.  The term sexual abuse or exploitation also includes a number of sex-related crimes when committed against a child.  Sexual abuse or exploitation can happen in person or via technology.   

School employees who engage in sexual misconduct with students may be male or female, young or old.  While most studies show a higher proportion of male offenders, some analysts believe that female abusers might be underreported if the target is male because males have been socialized to believe they should be flattered or appreciative of sexual interest from a female.  It is important to set aside any preconceived notions regarding who engages in sexual misconduct.  Most offenders do not fit the stereotype of an abuser as an easily identifiable danger to children.  They cannot be picked out of a crowd.  Many are those most celebrated in their profession. Their popularity makes it difficult for accusations to be believed or allows them to explain away the behavior.  District officials and community members may ignore accusations on the belief that outstanding teachers can’t be abusers. (U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary, Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature, Washington, D.C., 2004).

While there is no clear profile of an offender, there are some shared characteristics and patterns of behavior.  More often than not sexual relationships between educators and students are the culmination of a series of boundary crossings.  Oftentimes, the teacher-student relationship may initially be appropriate, but at some point the relationship shifts to serving the needs of the teacher and not the needs of the student. There may be an increase in the frequency of interaction as well as an increased level of intimacy, which ultimately may lead to a sexual relationship. In many cases, the teacher takes on a new role with a student, which causes the traditional relationship to become blurred.  When teachers become confidants, friends or counselors of students, a dual relationship is created which creates an ambiguity in the student-teacher relationship where roles are less defined. This ambiguity helps to foster inappropriate actions and educator misconduct.

Prevention of sexual misconduct demands the involvement and commitment of every educator, every parent and every school employee in a school community. The Commission is developing an online course that will discuss the concept of sexual misconduct, how to recognize the “red flags” often indicate the possibility of sexual misconduct, the profile of someone who engages in sexual misconduct and someone who is a victim and finally prevention strategies.  When the course is available, a link will be provided below.