Sexual Misconduct in Schools:
How We Can (and Should) Learn from the Jerry Sandusky Case
By Heather Hulse, J.D., M.S., M.A. and Joseph McGettigan, Esq.
Sexual misconduct of students at the hands of educators that students and their families should be able to trust is devastating to victims and their families, as well as the communities whose faith in the educational system has also been violated. Sexual misconduct in school happens in every state across the nation and Pennsylvania’s Department of Education has reported that more than half of all disciplinary actions enforced on educators in Pennsylvania schools involve sexual misconduct. While the statistics certainly support the alarming prevalence of sexual misconduct in schools, the apprehensiveness to believe such horrible violations occur as frequently as they do can often add another layer of anguish for victims and their families.
The shocking and horrendous acts of Jerry Sandusky and the incredible fall out in the very tight community where they occurred, as well as nationwide, are a reminder of how challenging the investigations of sexual misconduct can be. As many recall, Jerry Sandusky was the assistant coach for Penn State University’s football team that was convicted of forty-five (45) counts of child sex crimes against ten (10) victims over fifteen (15) years. More specifically, he horrifically sexually molested boys from eight (8) years old to seventeen (17) years old for years. The Jerry Sandusky scandal is a tragic reminder that it is imperative that school employees, parents and guardians, and members of communities fully understand ways to prevent sexual misconduct in schools and the appropriate course of action when a report of sexual misconduct has been made. Preventing sexual misconduct can obviously save students and their families undue suffering. Responding appropriately to reports of sexual misconduct assists victims and their families in coping with and navigating the aftermath of what has tragically happened to them and helps to bring the proper consequences to perpetrators.
Preventing sexual misconduct in schools begins with understanding what actually constitutes sexual misconduct. Sexual misconduct is broad, encompassing all forms of sexual contact and sexual abuse as well as behaviors that may lead to sexual contact. Sexual misconduct is legally defined pursuant to the Educator Discipline Act as:
“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:
- sexual or romantic invitations;
- dating or soliciting dates;
- engaging in sexualized or romantic dialogue;
- making sexually suggestive comments;
- self-disclosure or physical exposure of a sexual, romantic or erotic nature; or
- any sexual, indecent, romantic, or erotic contact with the child or student.” (4 P.S. §§2070.1b).
Awareness and recognition of the potential “red flags” that often indicate possible sexual misconduct is an essential component to prevention. Perpetrators of sexual misconduct often possess certain characteristics and behavioral patterns. Jerry Sandusky used a common tactic of sexual perpetrators known as “grooming.” (Robins, 2000). He would gradually gain the trust of his victim that started with gifts and invitations to football games then led to overnight visits and touching, and eventually resulted in sexual assault. Jerry Sandusky already had the trust and respect of the institution that brought them together (his youth charity, the Second Mile) and the extremely large state college for whom he was a well-respected faculty member (Penn State University).
Sexual misconduct in schools bears its own set of considerations regarding the relationships of perpetrators and victims. Students are taught to trust teachers, coaches, and administrators in schools. Parents and guardians expect that teachers, coaches, and educators are properly cleared and are not going to victimize their children. There is the additional component that teachers, coaches, and administrators are more believable than students. As to the style of predatory behavior, sexual misconduct against students at the elementary school to middle school level is more premeditated and typically involves grooming of the victim, while sexual misconduct of late middle school to high school students is more often opportunistic. (Shakeshaft and Cohan, 1994). In a school setting, grooming can take place by offering additional help on a project, offering to work one-on-one to teach the student how to play a musical instrument, or offering to work on athletic skills after practice. Parents and guardians are often pleased to hear of the additional support being offered to their child and therefore, often do not question the motives.
Another common pattern of behavior among predators is ensuring the student is bound to secrecy. (Shakeshaft and Cohan, 1994). Jerry Sandusky worked hard to make his victims feel as if his terrible actions were out of love in an effort to make his victims feel there is nothing wrong what is happening and no reason to tell anyone. Sadly, one of his victims still believed their relationship was one of love during Jerry Sandusky’s trial. Perpetrators will also use other methods to ensure secrecy, such as using threats (telling the student they will fail them if they tell), abusing their power (telling the student no one will believe them over the perpetrator), and using the child’s affection for them (telling the student they will not be able to be friends anymore if they tell).
Educators who engage in sexual misconduct are often well-regarded in their areas of study and well-liked among students and faculty. (Shakeshaft and Cohan, 1994). Teachers, followed by coaches, have the highest frequency of sexual misconduct among school employees. (Shakeshaft, 2003). Teachers who have positions that provide them more opportunities for time with individual students, such as music teachers and coaches, are more likely to engage in sexual misconduct. (Jennings and Tharp, 2003). It is unfortunate that those who are believed to be trustworthy adults who genuinely care about students sometimes betray that trust, but it is important for educators, parents and guardians, communities, and students to be cognizant of the possibility and potential indicators.
There is often the misperception that perpetrators of sexual misconduct in schools are always younger. This misperception may be perpetuated by the belief that older perpetrators would have been apprehended sooner in life. Perpetrators of sexual misconduct in schools range from twenty-one (21) years old to seventy-five (75) years old. (Hendrie, 1998).
Most perpetrators are male, but, of course, can be female. (Shakeshaft and Cohan, 1994; Jennings and Tharp, 2003). Often, there can be the inaccurate socialized belief that male victims of female perpetrators should be complimented or grateful of the sexual interest from an older female, particularly if the victim is male. Sadly, the impact of sexual misconduct can be just as devastating to victims of female perpetrators regardless of their gender. Moreover, this inaccuracy can also lead to underreporting from male victims by female perpetrators.
Perpetrators of sexual misconduct are often careful in choosing their victims. Jerry Sandusky began a charity for young boys from broken homes, the large majority of which had homes with absent fathers. This was not by accident. Jerry Sandusky knew that his victim pool would likely be searching for a father figure whom they believed cared about their well-being. Jerry Sandusky also knew that the boys he chose had likely not had the opportunities like going to a college football game or even swimming in the pool at Penn State University. He used these assets to build trust and affection within his victims. The betrayal was devastating.
Victims of sexual misconduct are more frequently female. (Shakeshaft and Cohan, 1994; Hendrie, 1998). However, male victims are less likely to report sexual misconduct due to the inaccurate socialization that the male victim should have enjoyed it from the female perpetrator and homophobia where the perpetrator is male. (Shakeshaft and Cohan, 1994). Sexual misconduct occurs in classrooms (empty or not), in hallways, in offices, on buses, in cars, in the educator’s home, in outdoor secluded areas, and sometimes, right in front of other students. (Shakeshaft and Cohan, 1994).
Shockingly, there is very little scientific data on the prevalence of sexual victimization of students with disabilities. There is considerable data to indicate that students with disabilities are more likely to be mistreated than students that do not have a disability. (Sobsey, 1994; Sobsey, Randall, and Parrila, 1997; Sullivan and Knutson, 2000). There is also evidence to suggest that more students with disabilities are victimized by bus drivers. (Sullivan and Knutson, 2000). Students who are non-verbal give rise to particular concern because they are not always easily able to communicate whether anyone has violated them. Students with behavioral disorders are five (5) times more likely to be the victim of sexual misconduct. (Sullivan and Knutson, 2000).
In the awful event that there is suspicion, witness to, or a report of sexual misconduct, it is imperative for school staff, parents and guardians, and communities to respond appropriately. Unfortunately, the majority of reports of sexual misconduct in schools are either ignored or not believed. (Shakeshaft and Cohan, 1994). Most reports of sexual misconduct in schools are not reported to the police and it is highly questionable how many sexual misconduct reports are being appropriately referred to child protective services. (Shakeshaft and Cohan, 1994). It is not surprising at all that the most common reason that students do not report sexual misconduct in schools is their fear that they will not be believed. (Robins, 2000).
Unless there is a valid reason to do otherwise, it is so important to believe the victim reporting the sexual misconduct. This may not be the instinctive response if the reported perpetrator is someone that presents as a nice, law-biding citizen, is well-educated, appears to be happily married, or is well-respected in the community. Jerry Sandusky was a highly respected member of the Penn State University faculty, who played football for Penn State and was a coach for thirty-two (32) years. He was sixty-eight (68) years old, was married for forty-five (45) years, and had raised six (6) adopted children at the time of his arrest in November 2011. Educators who engage in sexual misconduct most often present as someone that would not be expected of engaging in such horrific acts. That is unfortunately one of the reasons they are frequently able to continue to engage in sexual misconduct without consequences.
Reporting the sexual misconduct complaint to the police and child protective services should occur whenever warranted. If there is a possible criminal act, it should be reported to the police. In Pennsylvania, educators, as mandated reporters, are required to immediately report any suspected child abuse to child protective services. Pennsylvania statute defining child abuse includes “causing sexual abuse or exploitation of a child through any act or failure to act.” (23 Pa. C.S.A. § 6303(b)(4).)
Reports should be given the benefit of the doubt even if it appears difficult to accept as true due to the relationships staff may have with the reported perpetrator. When Jerry Sandusky was investigated and arrested, it came to light that several long-term and highly positioned officials failed to report suspected sexual misconduct of Jerry Sandusky. As a result, the University’s president and football coach were fired, and the University’s vice president and athletic director resigned. There was much controversy over the firing of the decades-long and very popular football coach, Joe Paterno, who did in fact report the misconduct to his superiors, but many believed he should have done more. Jerry Sandusky was well known in the very large Penn State University community and many people within that community were aware of the disturbing behaviors that he demonstrated, but chose to look the other way, stay silent, minimize the actions, or explain it as something less than sexual misconduct. In Jerry Sandusky’s case, these failures to appropriately respond were made in an effort to protect the University’s long-standing and revered football program. Such failures to respond can often occur due to fellow employees’ reluctance to believe someone they believe to know well to be capable of sexual misconduct.
Schools should conduct comprehensive and thorough investigations and ensure that proper investigations are being completed by the police and child protective services when warranted. The victims’ families, and victim when appropriate, should be kept fully informed of the components of the investigations and be given every opportunity to participate in that process.
Schools should also ensure that preventative measures are implemented. There should be written institutional codes regarding contact between adults and children in program settings. Of course, background checks should be completed on all employees. One-on-one contacts between students and staff members should be periodically monitored. Parents should be educated on what red flags to look for and be carefully monitoring their children’s interactions with other adults.
For any more information on sexual misconduct in schools or if you require assistance in navigating through the process with knowledge, understanding, and compassion, please feel free to contact our office. Our initial consultation in sexual misconduct cases is always free and these matters are handled on a contingency basis without hourly fees charged to families.
Hendrie, C. and Drummond, S. (eds) (1998, Dec. 2, 9 and 16). A trust betrayed: Sexual abuse by teachers. Education Week.
Jennings, D. and Tharp, R. (2003, May 4, 5, 6). Betrayal of trust. The Dallas Morning News.
Robins, S.L. (2000). Protecting our students: A review to identify and prevent sexual misconduct in Ontario schools. Ontario Ministry of the Attorney General, Toronto.
Shakeshaft, C., and Cohan, A. (1994, January). In loco parentis: Sexual abuse of students in schools (What administrators should know), 1-40. Administration and Policy Studies, Hofstra University.
Shakeshaft, C., and Cohan, A. (1994). In loco parentis: Sexual abuse of students in schools. What administrators should know. Report to the U.S. Department of Education, Field Initiated Grants.
Shakeshaft, C. (2003, Spring). Educator Sexual Abuse. Hofstra Horizons, pp. 10-13.
Sobsey, D., Randall, W. and Parrila, R.K. (1997). Gender differences in abused children with and without disabilities. Child Abuse and Neglect. Vol. 21, No. 8, pp. 707- 720.
Sullivan, P.M., and Knutson, J. F. (2000). The prevalence of disabilities and maltreatment among runaway children. Child Abuse and Neglect. Vol 24, No. 10, pp. 1275- 1288.