Even today, in an era where America is slowly beginning to confront the scope and effects of childhood sexual abuse, the statistics can still shock: An estimated one in 10 children will face sexual or other abuse at the hands of a school employee during their academic career.
That could mean as many as 100,000 children in Massachusetts are being victimized each year, according to Jetta Bernier of the advocacy group Massachusetts Citizens for Children, better known as MassKids.
Many cases continue to go unreported or, if reported, unheard. Too often when abuse is reported, it is ignored or its seriousness minimized by school officials. When administrators do act, it is often to quietly move an offending teacher out of the district, never notifying other school systems they may be making a troubling hire.
Slowly, however, that is starting to change.
“More and more schools are starting to say, ‘We have to get smart about this,’” Bernier said last week.
Bernier was speaking to reporter Julie Manganis after a training session for local teachers, school administrators and law enforcement professionals held in Salem. Sponsored by MassKids and the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association, which insures school districts, the seminar covered a wide range of topics from how to spot abuse to how to deal with teachers facing an accusation.
The training is vitally important because too often school leaders shy away from dealing with abuse accusations. Sometimes, it’s because they believe the teacher couldn’t possibly be at fault. Sometimes, it’s because they fear the litigation that could come with charges of sexual abuse, either from the family of the child affected or the teacher facing the accusation.
But ignoring the problem doesn’t make it go away.
“They’ll say, ‘Well, there were rumors, but we thought it was just gossip,’” said the MIAA’s David Dowd of school administrators reluctant to address the problem. Or, he said, leaders will talk to the teacher, who denies the abuse, and the “investigation” ends there.
Of course, those cases still often end in lawsuits. And as Dowd points out, the students often feel more traumatized by the way administrators handled their complaint than the initial abuse.
That is what makes training sessions such as the one held last week so valuable; the vast majority of teachers and school officials want to help but simply don’t know how. Expanding training across all disciplines and school levels is a must.
But that is only half the equation. While Massachusetts has some of the toughest laws in the country regarding mandatory reporting of abuse, there are still significant gaps — to call them loopholes would be too generous — that must be closed in order to truly protect children and make sure abusers are removed from the school setting and brought to justice.
State Sen. Joan Lovely has filed legislation that would address many of these problems.
The Salem Democrat’s bill would expand the list of those required to report suspected abuse to include youth sports organizations, volunteer coaches, tutors and contractors, while making sure all involved get the type of training provided by MassKids and the MIAA last week.
It would also increase criminal penalties for accusers and raise the age of sexual consent for students from 16 to 19, and up to 22 for developmentally disabled students.
Significantly, schools would also be barred from using nondisclosure agreements that often allow abusive teachers and other employees to move from school district to school district without their offenses being known.
“They sign these agreements and then move them along to the next school system, and it repeats,” Lovely told Statehouse reporter Christian Wade last year. “We want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Making sure that doesn’t happen means better training for educators. But it also means laws that are in touch with the times. Massachusetts needs more of both.