The So-Called Public School Plague

This weekend, the AP dispatched an extensive, detailed report about sexual misconduct among educators, ranging from inappropriate speech to rape, and examining the "pass the trash" phenomenon, in which a sexual predator is passed from school to school without ever having charges brought, much the same way predator priests were(/are?) passed from parish to parish in the Catholic church.

Now, "passing the trash" is a problem for American public schools, even without any sexual element; background checks don't turn up ethical offenses of any sort—grade fixing, substance abuse, physical altercations with students, etc.—if the district at which the offense(s) happened make an agreement with the teacher/administrator to seal the record if s/he resigns quietly, saving the district bad publicity. And that happens a lot.

So there's definitely a real and not insignificant issue into which this article has tapped. And, of course, sexual assault is a gravely serious problem, about which I trust my constant writing gives some hint of my fervent belief that it needs more attention.

So why do I hate this article?

Well, let me start by saying that, like any endemic cultural affliction, there are smart ways to address the problem of sexual assault and there are not smart ways—and one of the least productive ways of dealing with the very real and very complex problem of sexual assault is hysteria.

Particularly when it comes to children and sexual assault, creating widespread panic is utterly counterproductive, for a variety of reasons, not least of which being that children who have been assaulted and turn quietly in on themselves are less likely to be noticed, and inevitably there are children who suffer their own kind of abuse by way of being coaxed into accusations that aren't real, cajoled into talking about disturbing details of abuse that never occurred. The Day Care Sex Abuse and/or Satanic Ritualistic Abuse hysterias (often linked) of the 1980's and '90s were just enormous clusterfucks of wasted resources that resulted in almost no convictions that held up to judicial scrutiny after the hysteria began to pass. Meanwhile, there were certainly legitimate cases of abusive day care workers that went unacknowledged as fantastical stories of hundreds of children abused in Satanic rituals at individual daycares ghoulishly captured the nation's attention.

Hysteria is, in a very real way, the flipside of denial—the meticulous refusal to acknowledge an institutional problem, the surreptitious concealment of perpetrators and their crimes, the rejection of responsibility, the denouncing of victims and enforced silence. The willful, deliberate blindness. The strategy most closely associated with the Catholic Church in their attempts to deny the breadth of the problem within its ranks. Two sides of the same coin. In the end, making everyone a suspect is just as dangerous as making no one a suspect.

So back to the AP article. Let's start with the headline the AP gave its report, repeated by nearly every outlet in which I read it: Sexual misconduct plagues US schools.


Hmm. Well, that word strikes me as a wee bit inflammatory, if I'm honest. But let's get into the statistics. Maybe it really is a plague.

The seven-month investigation found 2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, voluntarily surrendered or limited from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Young people were the victims in at least 1,801 of the cases, and more than 80 percent of those were students. More than half the educators who were punished by their states also were convicted of crimes related to the misconduct.
Fucking hell. 2,570. That's a lot.

Of course, there are also three million public school teachers in the US, making less than one-tenth of one percent (0.08%) of them among the educators reprimanded in some way for sexual misconduct. (Accounting for the fact that 90% of the offenses are committed by the only 24.9% of teachers that are male, that makes 0.3% of male teachers reprimanded in some way for sexual misconduct.) By way of comparison, "A review by America's Catholic bishops found that about 4,400 of 110,000 priests were accused of molesting minors from 1950 through 2002." That's 4%—more than ten times the rate of male public school teachers.

Less plague-like than I might have imagined.

If you note that the AP uses "educators" interchangeably with "teachers" when using that 3 million number, but then also notes that the "the cases that the AP found were those of everyday educators—teachers, school psychologists, principals and superintendents among them," it gets a little messier yet. That's more than 3 million "educators," which means an even smaller percentage of them are sexual predators. Less and less plague-like all the time.

But, okay, maybe the AP was just a little sloppy with their numbers. I'm still willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that they're serious about educating the American public about the very real problem of sexual assault and not just writing an exploitative piece to lay the groundwork of a new hysteria which they'll then milk for all its worth for the next decade. So let's see what else they have to say:

Abuse also is treated with misplaced fascination in American culture.

"It's dealt with in a salacious manner with late-night comedians saying, 'What 14-year-old boy wouldn't want to have sex with his teacher?' It trivializes the whole issue," says Robert Shoop, a professor of educational administration at Kansas State University who wrote a book to help school districts deal with sexual misconduct.

"In other cases, it's reported as if this is some deviant who crawled into the school district -- 'and now that they're gone, everything's OK.' But it's much more prevalent than people would think."
Great point. Now we're getting somewhere.

Or would be—if the AP hadn't sent out a file photo of Mary Kay Letourneau to accompany the story, which I found used on a dozen different sites filing this report.

Well done, AP.

Not only does that undermine the extremely important point being made by Mr. Shoop about treating sexual misconduct like a joke, but it also deliberately misrepresents the problem:

[The perpetrators are] often popular and recognized for excellence and, in nearly nine out of 10 cases, they're male.
That number matters for one very important reason that the AP fails to mention: The majority of public school administrators are male, too. On the high school level, where there is the greatest concentration of male teachers (35%, compared to 9% on the elementary level), only 21% of high school principals by 2000 were women—and only 13% of school superintendents. The old Boys' Club is never overtly mentioned as a contributing factor to the problem of sexual misconduct in American public schools, despite the AP framing its report around the story of lifelong shuffled perv Gary C. Lindsey. The report opens thusly:

A young teacher in Iowa sheepishly admits that he fondled a fifth-grader's breast. But he doesn't lose his teaching license until one persistent victim and her family go public -- 40 years after the first accusation.
Then, midway through:

"You're supposed to be able to send your kids to school knowing that they're going to be safe," says Jennah Bramow, a 20-year-old single mom and waitress in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

While other victims accepted settlement deals and signed confidentiality agreements, she sued her city's schools for failing to protect her from accused teacher Gary C. Lindsey -- and won.

The trial revealed that Lindsey had been forced out of his first teaching job in Oelwein, Iowa, in 1964, after admitting he'd fondled a fifth-grader's breast.

"I guess it was just lust of the flesh," Lindsey told his superintendent. He moved on to schools in Illinois and eventually settled in Cedar Rapids.

Now 68, Lindsey refused multiple requests for an interview. "It never occurs to you people that some people don't want their past opened back up," he said when an AP reporter asked him questions at his home outside Cedar Rapids.

That past, according to court evidence, included abuse accusations from a half-dozen more girls and their parents, along with reprimands from principals that were filed away, explained away and ultimately ignored until 1995, when allegations from Bramow and two other girls forced his early retirement.

Even then, he kept his teaching license until the Bramows filed a complaint with the state. He was never charged criminally.
And then, it closes with (at least in the extended verion):

Arthur Sensor, the former superintendent in Oelwein, Iowa, who vividly recalls pressuring Lindsey to quit on Feb. 18, 1964, regrets that he didn't do more to stop him back then.

Now, he says, he'd call the police.

"He promised me he wouldn't do it again—that he had learned. And he was a young man, a beginning teacher, had a young wife, a young child." Sensor, now 86 years old, said during testimony at the Bramows' civil trial.

"I wanted to believe him, and I did."
A man who didn't want to ruin another man's life, passed him forward to another school, another principal, other students, and, of course, ultimately other victims. "Beyond the horror of individual crimes, the larger shame is the institutions that govern education have only sporadically addressed a problem that's been apparent for years," says the AP, also noting they uncovered "a deeply entrenched resistance toward recognizing and fighting abuse. It starts in school hallways, where fellow teachers look away or feel powerless to help. School administrators make behind-the-scenes deals to avoid lawsuits and other trouble." Fellow teachers feel powerless to help because of unresponsive school administrations. Administrations that make clear they are serious about teachers who behave in appropriate and/or criminal ways with their students don't have teachers who feel powerless working for them. This is a top-down problem.

And, at the top, more often than not, sit men—many of whom are just as likely to protect and shelter (or carefully ignore) sexual harassers and predators in their midst as has been the male hierarchy of the Catholic Church, as has the male hierarchy of the US military, as has the male hierarchy of many a police squad, as has male-dominated board rooms in corporate America.

"He was a young man, a beginning teacher, had a young wife, a young child … I wanted to believe him, and I did."

That is a problem not remotely unique to public schools.

In fact, the problem is so very much the same at public schools as everywhere else—the glad-handing, back-slapping, ruthlessly ambitious, Alpha-male good ol' boy is often the guy rewarded with the principal's office, who eventually becomes the superintendent of schools. It's the men least likely to be sympathetic to victims in the position where victims most need an advocate. That's an American problem, not a public school problem.

And now we come back to why I don't like this article. The biggest problems emerging from the AP report—unprosecuted serial perpetrators, unreported crimes, disbelieved victims, victim-blaming—are problems of our entire culture. That doesn't make them not important or not worth addressing—but casting them as a problem exclusively of schools (and "plaguing" schools, no less) is not helpful and may actually be detrimental. It's exactly this kind of article in which hysterias find their roots, for a start.

Beyond that, no good—none—will come of ghettoizing teaching as a profession of perverts. We already underfund schools and underpay teachers; there's really no need to make it a less desirable profession, dissuading decent and talented people in yet one more way from choosing teaching as a profession. I can think of no better way to ensure that the schools are filled with creeps and losers than by going on about how the teaching profession is plagued with sickos until no right-minded person would take the job.

That'll be just great for the kids in public school, won't it? We'll really have helped them out.

As I said at the start of this piece, there are smart ways to address the problem of sexual assault—and addressing it wisely and effectively within the specific confines of the public school system is dependent on many of the same precepts of addressing it wisely and effectively anywhere else, starting with education for both students and school staff on precisely what constitutes sexual misconduct and how it should be reported, and including the presence of a well-trained victims' advocate independent from the administration, someone who isn't inclined to make deals with sexual predators out of a sense of fraternity, a sense of obligation to protect the school, or any other reason that doesn't have fuck all to do with justice and safety.

Justice and safety in any school—or workplace, or organization, or even family—are always a top-down proposition. The most important component to protecting people is a willingness to prioritize their protection rationally and steadily—and comprehensively, by creating an environment where everyone is regarded as equals and treated with dignity, where there's no question that an adult touching a little girl's breast is wrong.

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