Sexual misconduct by educators with students is not only criminal, it has lifelong consequences for the victims. School districts must aggressively train teachers, paraeducators, coaches and administrators about appropriate boundaries and the need to avoid even the appearance of untoward behavior — and then they must enforce the rules.
In 2004, Cherol Shakeshaft synthesized studies of educator misconduct for the U.S. Department of Education. Research had found: Being the victim of sexual misconduct does damage that lasts well into adulthood, and for most is never fully repaired; child sexual abuse targets lose trust in adults and authority figures, suffer physical ailments and lowered immune systems, and do less well in school; victims are more likely to be substance users as adults and to have difficulty forming intimate relationships; and the same sense of betrayal that attaches to incest is found in sexual abuse by teachers, where the pseudo parental relationship has been sexualized.
All of that was localized by Columbian reporter Katie Gillespie in recent stories examining Clark County school districts and how they protect students. Notably, Gillespie found sharp differences between Evergreen Public Schools and Vancouver Public Schools, the region’s largest districts.
In Evergreen schools, new teachers and staff members go through a 35-minute sexual misconduct course and then retake the course on a three-year rotation. They also attend annual training to review district policy, and undergo bystander training to help outsiders recognize warning signs of inappropriate relationships.
In Vancouver schools, staff members annually take part in a 66-minute training course and also review the district’s own policy, which includes 14 specific policies. As The Columbian reported, “Unlike Evergreen’s policy, which is more broad, Vancouver homes in on specific things teachers are told not to do with students.” Marilee Scarbrough, the district’s chief legal officer, said: “It’s important to be specific. How else will people understand? That was very intentional.”
Cases of sexual misconduct by teachers typically are presaged by the grooming of victims. Sending students on personal errands unrelated to school or addressing them by pet names — actions singled out in the Vancouver training — often signal a pattern of developing a student for abuse.
In one case involving a former associate principal at Evergreen High School, the administrator followed a student on Instagram, offered to help him with homework, exchanged nude photos with him, and then started a sexual relationship. She is awaiting trial. In another case, a teacher at Evergreen exchanged 7,000 text messages with a student. She is serving a five-year sentence for rape of a child. Those are among five cases of alleged educator misconduct in Evergreen schools in recent years, while Vancouver has not had a reported incident since 2010.
While the vast majority of educators maintain boundaries with students, robust training can help prevent abuse. So, too, can proper reporting to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, as required by state law. Providing information can prevent teachers who engage in misconduct from hopping between districts to continue their abuse.
As Shakeshaft told The Columbian: “They have to change to a culture that pays attention to the kids … and overreacts in the interest of protecting kids rather than underreacts to defend an adult.” The consequences of failing to do so can linger for a lifetime.