Sexual Abuse Part 1: Prevalence In US Schools Higher Than It Seems

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The Associated Press released a study this week on the prevalence of sexual misconduct in US schools, citing at least 2,500 instances in both public and private schools between 2001-2005, 80% of which involved students. That’s more than 2,000 children in four years. However, a number of factors ensure that the actual number is exceedingly higher.

First of all, Maine has a perplexing law, dated back to 1913, that protects the identity teachers who have been decertified for any reason. The three cases cited in the report are the few that garnered nationwide attention.

Secondly, the report only documents teachers whose credentials have been revoked, denied, or suspended based on accusations (presumed proof) of sexual misconduct. Most accusations result in no action being taken and are never documented.

Now consider that each perpetrator most likely has had multiple victims.

And don’t forget that the majority of cases go unreported for years, decades, or are never told at all.

Why don’t children tell?

The website Prevent Abuse Now has compiled a wealth of information on child and family welfare, including a compendium of studies on child abuse. Here are a few snippets that address motivations behind the silences of child victims.

  • Abuse shatters a child’s ability to trust, especially when suffered at the hands of a long-trusted authority figure. An enormous amount of trust is required to reveal such devastating information.
  • A child may worry that the consequences of revealing the secret will be worse than the abuse itself. They may fear the reaction of their family, feel guilty about the consequences to the abuser, or may remain silence because of retaliatory threats made by the abuser.
  • The child may be experiencing “sexual guilt”, or otherwise feel that they caused or perpetuated the abuse.
  • Young victims may not be able to identify the incidents as abuse. It may be seen as a “secret game” or made otherwise to seem “normal”.
  • The intricate complexities involving a child’s decision to speak out about abuse is illuminated in this 1991 study by Sorensen and Snow: How Children Tell: The Process of Disclosure in Child Sexual Abuse. The study examined 116 confirmed cases of sexual abuse and found that “79 percent of the children
    in these cases initially denied abuse or were tentative in disclosing. Of
    those who did disclose, approximately three-quarters disclosed
    accidentally. Of all those who disclosed, roughly 22% eventually recanted their statements.”

Clearly the psychological and emotional aftermath of sexual abuse is complex and, if not understood, may seem enigmatic. What we do know is that most children don’t tell.The AP investigation sites previous studies that conclude only one out of every ten victimized children will tell anyone who is in a position to do something about it.

We document roughly 2,000 students across the country over four years, yet the unfortunate reality suggests more than 20,000. And these are just the cases in the education system.

Further Reading:

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: Behavioral Signs of Sexual Abuse

Parts 2 & 3 coming next … “When Boys Cry: Gender-Bias and Sexual Abuse” and “How the Statute of Limitations Denies Justice in Sexual Abuse Cases.”

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