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
(2) dating or
(3) engaging in
sexualized or romantic dialogue;
sexually suggestive comments;
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.,
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.