We've written quite a bit in this space about sexual abuse: abuse by doctors, abuse by therapists, and how Oregon tries to protect patients from sexual abuse. Unfortunately, medical settings are not the only places where people are abused by those they should be able to trust. Sexual abuse in schools is also an increasing problem. Are schools taking enough measures to keep students safe?
When we hear about sexual abuse in schools or sexual assault in schools, the cases that usually grab the headlines are those about adults, usually teachers, abusing students. These cases are disturbing, as they reflect adults in positions of trust and power taking advantage of vulnerable children in their care. Because these cases are the most publicized, many people are unaware that many more cases of sexual abuse in schools are student-on-student assault. According to an analysis of federal crime statistics by the Associated Press, for every sexual assault of a child by an adult at school, there were seven sexual assaults of a student by another child.
Tracking a period of four years, from the fall of 2011 through the spring of 2015, the AP discovered 17,000 cases of sexual assault of students by other students at school, on school buses, or at school-sponsored events like field trips. This figure may not represent all such assaults, since children, like adult sexual assault victims, do not always report what happened to them.
It’s also important to understand what is and is not included in this number. The AP excluded verbal assault and sexual harassment as well as things like kissing on the playground, concentrating only on the most severe forms of sexual assault. What they found is disturbing.
Five and six year olds made up 5% of the victims of student-on-student sexual abuse. Abuse took place at all types of schools, from the most economically disadvantaged public schools to the most highly-regarded private ones. The number of assaults took a sharp upturn for victims aged between ten and eleven, and kept rising until age fourteen, after which they began to drop off. Boys were victims as well as girls. While students who had trouble fitting in were often victimized, so were students who had previously gotten along well at school. The types of assault ranged from unwanted fondling to rape, sodomy, and penetration with an object. They took place in classrooms, locker rooms, buses, playgrounds, bathrooms, hallways—anywhere students congregate.
In some cases, victims and their families had complained to the school authorities about bullying or mistreatment prior to the actual assault, with no action or ineffective action being taken. When behavior escalated to sexual assaults, some victims were disbelieved or even accused of falsely accusing perpetrators.
Schools are supposed to keep students safe; why aren’t they doing a better job? There are a number of reasons.
One is the understandable delay in reporting. Children are confused and traumatized by assaults and often feel a deep sense of shame about what happened, even if they are too young to fully understand it. By the time they do tell someone, physical evidence supporting their claim, if any, is often long gone. There are often no eyewitnesses; those there are are usually other students, who may be reluctant to speak up.
Some student victims of assault fear, and rightly so, that they won’t be believed, or that reporting their assault will not make a difference—or may even result in worse retribution. Many students do not report assaults against them because the perpetrators threaten them or their families if they tell.
Aside from victim reluctance to report, though there are systemic reasons schools do not take greater action to punish and prevent sexual assault by students against other students. Some states do not keep statistics on these assaults. Elementary and secondary schools do not have a national requirement to track sexual violence by students against other students, nor to disclose such attacks.
What’s more, there are factors that motivate schools to keep sexual assaults by students quiet. Unless they are certain an assault occurred, which is rare, taking the side of an alleged victim could mean falsely accusing, and harming, an alleged perpetrator. Even if an accusation is true, schools may fear backlash from the parents of an accused child. Schools often mischaracterize sexual assault as “hazing” or “kids being kids.”
A darker reality is that many school administrators simply do not want the potential liability and bad reputation of being a school where sexual assault takes place. They may hide behind laws or policies regarding student privacy to avoid disclosing information about alleged or confirmed assaults to the greater community.
Federal Title IX is supposed to protect student victims of sexual assault, and state laws may offer some protection as well. Unfortunately, victims and their families often face an uphill climb in attempting to hold schools to account for not providing a safe learning environment.
If your child has been the victim of a sexual assault at school, we understand the anguish you are experiencing, as well as the frustration of trying to get the school to do the right thing. Taking legal action may be challenging, but it may also be the only way to get the closure and accountability you deserve. We invite you to contact our law office to schedule a consultation and to discuss what bringing suit against your school or school district might entail. If you decide to proceed with legal action, we will support and advocate for you every step of the way.
You may also be interested in:
© 2019 Huegli Fraser PC