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Weeding out sex abusers difficult

At higher grade levels, assaults usually aren’t premeditated

Posted: September 27, 2008 8:18 p.m.
Updated: November 29, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Only about 6 percent of all children report sexual abuse by an adult to someone who can actually do something about it.

 

They can appear to be charming, bright and hardworking, but they are actually immature, are often unbalanced and are sometimes dealing with their own troubled childhoods.

These are the types of teachers that prey on high school and junior high students, according to Larry Schallert, director of adult education and community services for the Santa Clarita Child & Family Center.

“This is not really an uncommon phenomenon — it happens all the time,” Schallert said. “If you look back, it’s always kind of been there.”

Schallert is a licensed clinical social worker with a masters degree in social work from the University of Southern California.

While teachers who abuse elementary-aged students often enter the profession to be around children, those who develop relationships with older students do not usually become teachers with the hope of finding romance with one of their young charges. However, when an opportunity presents itself, they can’t resist, Schallert said.

“I think there’s the occasional teacher who has a pattern, but it’s more opportunistic in general,” he said. “Even though there is a huge risk to their job, they can’t help themselves.”

A 2004 study prepared for the U.S. Department of Education by Charol Shakeshaft and titled “Educator Sexual Misconduct” backs up Schallert’s description of teachers who prey on teenaged victims.

“At this level, the initial acts are somewhat less premeditated and planned and more often opportunistic, a result of bad judgment or a misplaced sense of privilege,” Shakeshaft wrote.

Since most secondary school teachers don’t enter the profession with the plan to seduce one of their students, it can be difficult for school districts to weed out potential abusers.

“The schools will do their due diligence with background checks and such, but if it comes up clean and their record is clean, there is no reason to expect any problem,” Schallert said. “(These teachers) can have very good credentials.”
 
Who are the victims?
Teachers who get involved with students typically seek out kids who are vulnerable, Schallert said.

“They’re isolated or they’re mad at their parents or their parents are busy and not paying enough attention,” Schallert said. “At that age, kids are not really able to make mature decisions. They’re just like, ‘Oh, someone’s paying lots of attention to me and I like it.’”

While almost all children respond to positive attention from an educator, students who are estranged from their parents, who are unsure of themselves, or who are engaged in risky behavior are often targeted, according to Shakeshaft’s study. These students are also more likely to maintain their silence, her study found.

“Whether premeditated or opportunistic, selection is influenced by the compliance of the student and the liklihood of secrecy,” Shakeshaft wrote. “Because most educator abusers seek to conceal their sexual contact with students, offenders often target students that they can control.”

Grooming for abuse
In her report, Shakeshaft provides a chilling description of the process of “grooming,” where an abuser “selects a student, gives the student attention and rewards, provides the student with support and understanding, all the while slowly increasing the amount of touch or other sexual behavior.”

The students enjoy the attention and are not mature enough to realize that a boundary is being crossed, Schallert said.

“The teacher will tell the student, ‘I’m gonna take care of you. I care about you and your parents don’t. Here, let me give you a massage,’” Schallert said.|

Grooming allows the abuser to test the student’s silence at each step of the seduction, Shakeshaft’s study found.

Don’t tell
Teachers persuade students to keep silent either by intimidation and threats, exploiting the power structure or by manipulating the child’s affections, Shakeshaft found.

Fear of discovery and punishment or shame for doing something forbidden also keep children from speaking, she wrote.

“There is certainly a major power differential that is not appropriate, and that’s part of what keeps (students) from speaking out. They don’t want to get their friend in trouble and they fear what the consequences are,” Schallert said. “They might also not want to go to court and reveal all the details of their relationship, which could involve not only sex, but drugs and other abuses.”

Some children who are sexually abused by educators do not characterize what is happening as abuse, because they are told what is happening is love, Shakeshaft’s study found.

“That is not to say they don’t identify what is happening as shameful, unwanted, wrong or frightening,” Shakeshaft wrote.

According to Shakshaft, only about 6 percent of all children report sexual abuse by an adult to someone who can actually do something about it. The other 94 percent either do not tell anyone or talk only to a friend, swearing the friend to secrecy.

A double standard?
Over the past few years, reports of relationships between female educators and male students increased across the nation. Some people complain there is a double standard when it comes to convicting teachers in these cases.

“Some people just say, ‘Yeah, it’s just ‘The Summer of ‘42,’” Schallert said. “I think in the criminal courts these days there seems to be a difference in how these cases are handled, but both types of cases should be treated with the same severity.”

The effects are the same in both types of relationships, he said.

“The kid might feel like, hey, I wasn’t traumatized, but everyone around him sees that he is changed,” Schallert said. “This is a major event in a kid’s life and it’s going to have a major effect.”

Young men who get involved in sexual relationships with adults get a distorted attitude toward relationships and sex, which will affect their future relationships and even their friendships, he said.

“It’s harder for them to carry on normal relationships like friendships when their view of relationships has been so distorted,” Schallert said. “The kid may be thinking it’s okay to have a sexual relationship with, and smoke pot with his teacher, but we know that when kids are being sexually abused it affects them in a number of developmental areas.

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