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Teacher Sexual Abuse and Misconduct

Updated: Jun 4, 2023

Educators are some of the most cherished members of our community. Arguably they play one of the most pivotal roles in our children’s lives, educating them in fundamental skills and promoting their social and emotional growth and well-being. However, in recent years there has also been increased media attention on cases of educator sexual misconduct. Sadly, these are not isolated incidents, as it is estimated that about 10 percent of students will experience educator sexual misconduct by the time they graduate high school.

The term educator sexual misconduct is relatively broad. It encompasses a variety of inappropriate sexual behaviors, including verbal (sexual comments or jokes), visual (exposure of genitals or sharing inappropriate images), or physical behavior (kissing, touching, fondling, or intercourse) that occurs between an educator and student. Furthermore, the term educator can refer to schoolteachers and other school employees such as administrators, counselors, support staff, bus drivers, and coaches.

Prevalence of Sexual Misconduct

Despite the widespread prevalence of the problem, educator sexual misconduct remains understudied. One of the most comprehensive reviews of educator sexual misconduct occurred in 2004. At the behest of the United States Department of Education (USDOE), Charol Shakeshaft thoroughly reviewed the existing research literature available at the time detailing sexual misconduct in school settings. In her subsequent report to the USDOE,1 known colloquially as the “Shakeshaft Report,” she estimated the prevalence of educator sexual misconduct at the time to be 9.6 percent of the U.S. student body.

  • Of that estimate, 6.7 percent reported sexual contact (meaning that the child was touched sexually)

  • Additionally, 8.7 percent reported noncontact sexual behaviors (sexually suggestive language, being shown sexual images/notes, or exposure to body parts).

  • Extrapolated to the U.S. population, this meant that four to five million children had experienced some form of educator misconduct at the time.

Since the Shakeshaft report in 2004, there have been few studies examining current rates of sexual misconduct. In 2020, the Office of Civil Rights, part of the USDOE, reviewed official data on allegations of sexual assault and rape in U.S. schools and found that between the years 2017-2018, there were:
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  • Fourteen thousand one hundred fifty-two allegations of sexual assault (0.02 percent of all school children at the time; defined as threatened rape, fondling, indecent liberties, or child molestation)

  • Seven hundred eighty-six allegations of rape or attempted rape (less than 0.001 percent of the student body; defined as forced sexual intercourse–vaginal, anal, or oral).

These rates of alleged sexual abuse represented a 53 percent increase for sexual assault and a 99 percent increase for rape/attempted rape from the last report in 2015-2016. However, as these statistics are based only upon official reports, they may greatly underestimate the scope of the problem, as Shakeshaft found that only 6 percent of students officially reported the educator sexual misconduct they experienced.

New Study

A new large-scale, multistate survey of recent high school graduates about the nature and scope of educator sexual misconduct in Grades K-12 conducted by our lab found that almost 20 years after the publication of the Shakeshaft report, educator sexual misconduct remains rampant. Of the 6632 participants, 11.7 percent reported having experienced at least one form of educator sexual misconduct during grades K-12.

Specifically, 11 percent reported sexual comments, 0.6 percent reported that they were shown or given sexual pictures or photos or were sent sexual messages, 0.9 percent reported having been touched in a sexual manner, and 0.4 percent reported other sexual activity, including sexual intercourse or oral sex.
Similar to past research, we found that:
  • Most perpetrators were teachers (63.4 percent) or coaches/gym teachers (19.7 percent).

  • Most perpetrators were male (89.1 percent).

  • The majority of those who experienced educator sexual misconduct were female (72 percent), and in high school at the time, they experienced sexual misconduct.

  • Sexual grooming behaviors such as giving the student gifts, food, money, jewelry, and special attention were often reported.

  • There were low rates of reporting, and few reports resulted in the disciplinary action of the educator.

Importantly, those who reported educator misconduct were significantly more likely than those who did not report educator misconduct to disclosure a variety of negative long-term negative consequences, including:
  • Poorer overall psychological well-being

  • A past suicide attempt

  • Use of alcohol or drugs

  • Coercive sexual intercourse

While we could not conclude that the experience of educator sexual misconduct caused these behaviors, it was also possible that educators engaged in sexual misconduct with students that they perceived to be more vulnerable, a tactic used by those who perpetrate childhood sexual abuse to prevent disclosure and detection.

Next Steps

The rates of educator sexual misconduct found in this study show that it remains a serious problem in U.S. schools, impacting millions of students. Going forth, we must be focused on addressing the problem of education sexual misconduct by:
  • Enforcing zero-tolerance policies in schools for boundary violations of a sexual nature.

  • Including educator sexual misconduct/abuse as a topic in sexual abuse prevention training for students, faculty, and parents/guardians.

  • Requiring educational institutions to have policies and procedures for reporting educator sexual misconduct that are easily accessible and reviewed by students, faculty, and parents/guardians every year.

  • Ensuring all states pass legislation preventing teachers from resigning without investigation when allegations of sexual misconduct are made against them.

  • Requiring educator reference checks to include information beyond the dates that a previous institution employed the educator and include questions about any previous allegations of boundary violations.

  • The development of a mandatory national database for all confirmed instances of educator sexual misconduct.

  • Provide support and counseling for students who allege educator sexual misconduct.


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