National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  March 26, 2004

Uncovering sex abuse in schools mirrors church experience


After studying the prevalence of sexual misconduct against students by school employees, Charol Shakeshaft found that the issue “is woefully understudied,” but she learned enough to say that the problem “is at least equal to if not more serious in schools than in the Catholic church.”

From 1991 to 2000, about 315,000 students per year experienced some sort of physical sexual abuse by a public school employee -- mainly teachers, estimates Shakeshaft, a professor of educational policies at Hofstra University in Huntington, N.Y. There are about 47.7 million students age 6 to 18 enrolled in U.S. public schools.

Shakeshaft told NCR that research has shown that only about 6 percent of victims report their abuse, so school authorities likely knew of fewer than 19,000 of these incidents.

She estimates that 9.6 percent of all students in grades 8-11 reported sexual harassment by teachers, coaches, or other school employees. That included sexual remarks, jokes or gestures. About 6.7 percent of students reported harassment involving physical contact. About 56 percent of victims were girls.

In 57 percent of cases, teachers were the reported perpetrators. Other cases involved other employees such as bus drivers and teachers’ aides. About 57 percent of offenders were males.

According to the U.S. bishops, 10,667 children were abused by 4,392 clerics over the last 50 years.

For about a year, Shakeshaft has been researching this issue for the U.S. Department of Education. She attracted some media attention when she completed her report in early March, coincidently about the same time the U.S. bishops released reports on the sexual abuse by clergy.

Subsequently, the Education Department asked Shakeshaft not to comment on her report until department officials have completed their review of it. Shakeshaft talked with NCR about other research she has done on sexual abuse of minors in public schools.

Shakeshaft bases her projection on statistics from a national survey of 2,064 public school students in grades 8-11 conducted by the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation in 2000.

Furthermore, Shakeshaft said that attempts by those in authority to conceal abuse, which caused such scandal in the Catholic church, may be evidenced within school systems. A 1994 study she did on disciplinary action against 225 public school teachers who admitted sexually abusing children in New York state found 15 percent were terminated and 25 percent received no disciplinary consequences.

Of the rest, 39 percent left the school district, many with a positive recommendation to teach elsewhere, and the rest were informally reprimanded, she said. None were reported to the police or district attorney.

Based on her years of experience working with school administrators, Shakeshaft said, “I don’t believe there is a lot of concerted, deliberate efforts to cover up.” Except for a small minority, she said she believes “most school administers acted defensively” -- trying to protect schools and victims -- “and believed they could handle this internally.”

“It just doesn’t occur to most of them that they need to report this,” she said. “I’m not defending these errors in judgment,” she said. “The outcome of these errors is that kids are being hurt and we need to change that.”

While some educational professionals have questioned Shakeshaft’s analysis of figures, she responds that the uncertainty is precisely why this problem needs further study.

Shakeshaft could not comment on her report, which is mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, but Education Week quoted from a draft of the report: “We have scant data on incidence and even less on descriptions of predators and targets. There are many questions that call for answers.”

The draft recommended further research on topics including prevalence and patterns of abuse, effects on targets and other students, consequences for offenders, and responses by schools, districts, professional organizations and the public.

The draft also called for study of effective investigative practices, the legal landscape, and state laws and policies. The frequency of false accusations is another area she cites as being worthy of examination.

But it is unclear how much more research will be done. Education Department spokesperson Carlin Mertz told Education Week that Shakeshaft’s study “is all we’re going to do right now.”

Shakeshaft told Education Week that if no additional study is commissioned, she would be disappointed.

Shakeshaft told NCR that the study would not necessarily have to be federally funded, but leadership at the national level is needed because the nation’s school system is so decentralized.

Some data from Catholic News Service was used in this report.

Dennis Coday is an NCR staff writer. His e-mail address is

The true scope of problem

Given that research has shown that only 6 percent of victims of sexual abuse report their abuse, extrapolating from the John Jay study of child sexual abuse by clergy, which found 10,667 reported cases, it is possible that 177,783 children under the age of 18 were abused by Catholic clergy since 1950 -- or about 3,354 incidents per year.

After looking at the John Jay data, researcher Charol Shakeshaft told NCR, “Of those reported, 75 percent occurred between 1960 and 1984. Assuming that this represents a more accurate representation of those who report -- since those who report often wait many years -- then 8,000 incidents occurred in a decade and a half, or 533 a year.

“If 533 each year is 6 percent of the real number of incidents, then a more accurate statistic would be 8,883 incidents each year,” she said.

-- Dennis Coday

National Catholic Reporter, March 26, 2004

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