A recent article by the Associated Press (AP) after conducting a yearlong investigation shed light on the extent of sexual assault taking place at our educational institutions. The AP uncovered about 17,000 official reports of sexual assaults by students over a four-year period, from fall 2011 to spring 2015. Furthermore, according to the AP, although this figure represents the most complete tally to date of sexual assaults among the nation’s 50 million K-12 students, it does not fully capture the problem. These types of attacks are greatly under-reported, notes the AP, for a number of reasons, including the fact that some states don't track the assaults and those that do vary widely in how they classify and catalog sexual violence. A number of academic estimates range sharply higher.
For example, elementary and secondary schools have no national requirement to track or disclose sexual violence, and they feel tremendous pressure to hide it. Even under varying state laws, acknowledging an incident can trigger liabilities and requirements to act.
Moreover, sexual abuse allegations can be difficult to investigate. Many accusers initially keep quiet, and physical evidence can be long gone once investigators step in. Additionally, typically there are no eyewitnesses, leaving only the conflicting accounts of the accuser and the accused. The AP investigation also found that when sexual violence was tracked it was often mischaracterized as bullying, hazing or consensual behavior.
The assaults reported happened anywhere students were left unsupervised: buses and bathrooms, hallways and locker rooms. Furthermore, no type of school was immune, whether it was located in an upper-class suburb, an inner-city neighborhood or a blue-collar farm town.
Additionally, all types of children were vulnerable. The investigation found that about 5% of the sexual violence involved 5- and 6-year-olds. But the numbers increased significantly between ages 10 and 11 — about the time many students start their middle-school years — and continued rising up until age 14. They then dropped as students progressed through their high school years.
The data also showed that student sexual assaults by peers were far more common than those by teachers. For every adult-on-child sexual attack reported on school property, there were seven assaults by students, according to the AP's analysis of federal crime data.
How should schools be addressing this problem?
Title IX obligates school districts to act on bullying and sexual violence. They are required to investigate — separate from any police inquiry — and take prompt action. The U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Right School has offered schools guidance on how to prevent and respond to such attacks, including:
- Implement school-wide programs that define sexual violence, encourage students and staff to report it, and clearly state the school’s disciplinary procedures.
- Designate a coordinator to master the requirements of Title IX and train staff on how to recognize sexual violence, investigate allegations and ensure accusers are not harassed for coming forward.
- Take immediate steps to protect students who allege assaults, such as providing escorts when moving between classes or ensuring they do not attend the same classes as their accused attackers.
- Offer victims counseling, mental health care or tutoring.
- Conduct periodic school-wide “climate checks” to assess the school's prevention efforts.
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