A federal watchdog agency is challenging other departments to better disseminate information to help schools prevent and report sexual abuse, and to more vigilantly track and analyze incidents of sexual abuse committed by school personnel, according to a report released Thursday.
The Government Accountability Office found in its report – requested by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. – that although 46 states have laws requiring school officials to report child sexual abuse and 43 have penalties for not reporting incidents, many states and school districts vary in how they promote awareness and prevention training for school personnel, as well as in how they report suspected abuse.
"Children have a right to be safe in schools and schools have a legal and moral obligation to fulfill that promise," Miller said in a statement. "We must take every available and reasonable step we can to ensure that the people and schools that are entrusted with our children every day protect them from abuse."
Those discrepancies in policy and reporting measures have led to many schools being unaware of their responsibilities in preventing abuse, the report says.
Title IX, an education law that prohibits sex discrimination in any education program receiving federal funds, also has provisions prohibiting sexual harassment. That means sexual abuse of students and sexual misconduct by school personnel are prohibited under Title IX, the report says.
"Schools have the responsibility to prevent sexual abuse under Title IX, but too many of them do not fully understand or comply with the existing requirements, leaving kids vulnerable to abuse and harassment," Miller said. "Protecting kids from sexual abuse in schools is not a choice; it's the law."
But just 18 states require school districts to provide awareness and prevention training on sexual abuse and misconduct, the report found. And of those 18, fewer than half required that Title IX coordinators (school employees who oversee compliance procedures), cafeteria and janitorial personnel, and bus drivers take that training. In only five states did the awareness and prevention training cover the applicability of Title IX to sexual abuse against students.
The report also cites a 2004 report from the Department of Education, which found nearly 1 in 10 students are sexually abused by school personnel – such as teachers, principals, coaches and bus drivers – at some point during their academic careers.
"However, the prevalence of sexual abuse by school personnel remains unknown, in part, because some cases go unreported," the report says. "Further, the term sexual abuse may not capture the full spectrum of the issue."
Some inappropriate behaviors that may not be captured under the umbrella of sexual abuse in state laws include "grooming behaviors" like giving extra attention to one student or giving gifts to a student's family. Using sexual language and gestures, committing written or verbal sexual advances and sharing sexual photos and videos are classified as "sexual misconduct," according to the study – but they still can fall outside the sexual abuse category. However, these definitions vary from state to state.
"Sexual abuse of students by school personnel raises particular concerns because of the trust and responsibility placed with schools to ensure a safe and productive learning environment," the report says.
In response to the report, Deborah Delisle, the Department of Education's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said the department is revising its Adult Sexual Misconduct training module to target a wider audience that will include school volunteers. She also said that "to the extent possible," the department will look into ways to better track the prevalence of child sexual abuse by school personnel.
"The Department shares the view, outlined in this report, that sexual abuse by school personnel raises particular concerns because of the trust placed with schools," Delisle said in her response. "Child sexual abuse has a wide array of significant detrimental consequences on the physical, psychological, academic, and behavioral development of children. ... Still, there remains much that needs to be done."
Jim Hmurovich, president and chief executive officer of Prevent Child Abuse America, said in a statement that the report shows there is “much more that can be done to promote the happy and healthy childhoods that all our children deserve.”
“As the old adage says, ‘Measure is the mark of man,’ but if we do not have common definitions, strategies, and effort to measure our prevention work, the impact is not as great as it could be,” Hmurovich said. “Every child deserves a happy and healthy childhood, but the fact that there are different definitions, standards and reporting requirements in different states makes the monumental task of finding where we need to concentrate our prevention efforts all the more difficult. This task is not left to the government and school systems alone, but it’s up to all of us.”
Updated on Jan. 31, 2014:
This story has been updated to reflect
comments from Prevent Child Abuse America.