How Many Kids Are Sexually Abused by Their Teachers?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Feb. 8 2012 7:14 PM

How Many Kids Are Sexually Abused by Their Teachers?

Probably millions.

Police stand outside Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles, California February 6, 2012.
Police stand outside Miramonte Elementary School in Los Angeles, where teachers have been accused of sexual misconduct

Krista Kennell/AFP/Getty Images.

Los Angeles police are investigating a teacher aide at Miramonte Elementary School who allegedly sent love letters to an 11-year-old student. The student’s mother discovered the letters in 2009, but she says police and school officials didn’t take the matter seriously until last week, when two other teachers at the same school were arrested for sexually abusing students in separate cases. Is sexual abuse in schools really as common as these reports make it seem?

Possibly. The best available study suggests that about 10 percent of students suffer some form of sexual abuse during their school careers. In the 2000 report, commissioned by the American Association of University Women, surveyors asked students between eighth and 11th grades whether they had ever experienced inappropriate sexual conduct at school. The list of such conduct included lewd comments, exposure to pornography, peeping in the locker room, and sexual touching or grabbing. Around one in 10 students said they had been the victim of one or more such things from a teacher or other school employee, and two-thirds of those reported the incident involved physical contact. If these numbers are representative of the student population nationwide, 4.5 million students currently in grades K-12 have suffered some form of sexual abuse by an educator, and more than 3 million have experienced sexual touching or assault. This number would include both inappropriate romantic relationships between teachers and upperclassmen, and outright pedophilia.  

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These statistics are uncertain, however, because no one has ever designed a nationwide study for the expressed purpose of measuring the prevalence of sexual abuse by educators. The Departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services can’t agree on whose domain teacher sexual misconduct falls into, and Congress has shown little appetite to spend money on the issue. In the study described above, surveyors asked participants if they had ever experienced sexual improprieties at school, then asked students who reported abuse to identify the perpetrator. Since the study was intended to measure student-to-student sexual misconduct, the original investigators didn’t focus on teacher-offenders. A third-party academic later used the raw data to suss out the prevalence of teacher sex abuse. A few smaller or less methodologically rigorous studies have also addressed the question, with wildly inconsistent results. One looked at college sociology students and estimated that nearly half had experienced sexual harassment by a teacher. Another surveyed 4,000 adults, with 4.1 percent reporting inappropriate sexual contact with a teacher during their high-school years. But the sample included only urbanites, and white respondents were overrepresented. A third study used responses to a questionnaire published in Seventeen magazine and estimated that just 3.7 percent of children suffer sexual abuse from their teachers.

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Explainer thanks Charol Shakeshaft of Virginia Commonwealth University.

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