Sexual misconduct is defined as inappropriate professional behavior of a sexual nature. The term includes sexual harassment, sexual abuse, and inappropriate sexual relationships. Although there is no definitive study indicating how prevalent educator sexual misconduct is, experts in the field estimate that approximately 10 percent of the student population experiences some form of inappropriate sexual activity with an educator at some time during their PreK–12 education. Yet because of the shame and guilt often experienced by students, these same experts suggest that there is a greater incidence of sexual misconduct than actually reported. This entry briefly discusses typical instances of misconduct and makes some suggestions for identifying and preventing such cases.
Defining Typical Misconduct
The most common form of educator sexual misconduct is classified as sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is unwelcome behavior of a sexual nature. One type of sexual harassment is quid pro quo, literally meaning “this for that,” in which a harasser in a power relationship (e.g., supervisor to employee or educator to student) either grants or withholds something desired, or undesired, from a victim in return for sexual favors. For example, a teacher may award a favorable grade to a student in exchange for sexual favors. Or as a reward for sexual favors, a counselor may promise to withhold sensitive information from a student’s parents.
Another type of harassment, hostile environment sexual harassment, occurs when a harasser creates an unwelcome environment by means of sexual acts, inappropriate language, pictures, or other messages. A power relationship need not exist to create a hostile environment, and usually a single incident is not pervasive enough to establish a legal claim of harassment. Examples of hostile environment harassment include the telling of sex-related jokes and stories, sending sexually related e-mails, and distributing sexually graphic photographs or cartoons.
Although sexual abuse can be categorized as sexual harassment, sexual abuse is typically viewed as a criminal act. Often defined by state statutes, sexual abuse is a nonconsensual sexual act that includes rape, child sexual abuse, and incest. When reported to law enforcement authorities, incidents of sexual abuse may lead to fines, orders of restraint, or incarceration.
In some instances, consensual sexual activity occurs between an educator and a student who is of consensual age. The age of consent varies greatly from state to state, ranging from 15 to 18. Nevertheless, most states have laws or ethics codes that prohibit inappropriate sexual conduct between an educator and student, regardless of the student’s age.
There is no stereotypical perpetrator of sexual misconduct. Research indicates that teachers are the most common offenders, with others being coaches, administrators, and other school employees. Coaches, and others who spend extensive amounts of time with students in an extracurricular setting, often develop close relationships with students. These relationships, combined with opportunity, enable the boundaries between educator and student to become blurred, leading to inappropriate sexual relationships. Offenders tend to be males who have been deemed trustworthy, popular, and model educators. The perpetrators are seldom predators—they do not enter the profession to prey on the students. In retrospect, the perpetrators usually experience deep feelings of guilt and shame.
Similar to the profile of the perpetrator, there is no stereotypical victim. Although victims of educator sexual misconduct are typically Caucasian females, females of color are overrepresented in relation to the population percentages. In many instances, the victims are vulnerable, have a psychological need for adult attention, are under great stress, and are easily intimidated. The victims often do not report the abuse because they feel responsible for the behavior, or the victims perceive that other adults will challenge the veracity of the reports. Additionally, the perpetrators may threaten or coerce the victim to remain silent.
Identification And Prevention
Identifying sexual misconduct is not an easy task, but there are some indicators that inappropriate behavior may be occurring. One indicator is overly affectionate behavior such as hugging or touching. Related indicating behavior is telling jokes of a sexual nature or using suggestive terms in conversation. Telephone visitation and conversations of an intimate nature between the educator and student are additional indicators of inappropriate relationships.
Unnecessary visitations beyond the school day are another sign. Those educators who extend their work days to assist students are often hard-working, dedicated educators seeking to make a difference in the lives of students. Yet perpetrators frequently use this as a means of grooming the student for future sexual activity. Likewise, student-initiated may be an attempt to violate appropriate educator–student boundaries.
Finally, complaints and innuendos of an inappropriate relationship between an educator and student are indicative of sexual misconduct. These rumors should be taken seriously and properly investigated.
To combat educator sexual misconduct, schools should establish clear written policies that delineate and prohibit inappropriate relationships. Additionally, school personnel should be diligent in the scrutiny of prospective employees and train employees on how to avoid inappropriate relationships and identify signs of misconduct. Finally, school-district policy makers should identify individuals to serve as investigators of allegations and rumors. Although a sense of educator guilt is embedded in these recommendations, experts caution policy makers to avoid establishing a climate of suspicion. In such a climate, innocent educators may believe that false accusations and vendettas against demanding teachers would become commonplace, although studies indicate that such accusations are rare.
- Fibkins, W. L. (2006). Innocence denied: A guide to preventing sexual misconduct by teachers and coaches. Toronto, ON, Canada: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Goorian, B. (1999). Sexual misconduct by school employees (Report No. EDO-EA-99–10). Eugene, OR: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED436816)
- Shakeshaft, C. (2004). Educator sexual misconduct: A synthesis of existing literature (Doc. # 2004–09). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Under Secretary.
- Shoop, R. J. (2004). Sexual exploitation in schools: How to spot it and stop it. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.
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