Ten states have taken action in recent months to crack down on sexually abusive teachers after a stream of arrests and reports that have documented the problem of educators victimizing students.
Governors, state education officials and lawmakers have led the push for new measures, which include tougher penalties for teachers who abuse students, punishment for administrators who fail to properly oversee their faculty, and an effort to train an entire state's corps of teachers to recognize potential abusers in their midst.
At least four more states are still considering legislation.
They are focusing on an increasingly undeniable phenomenon: While the vast majority of America's roughly 3 million public school teachers are committed professionals, a disturbing number have engaged in sexual misconduct. When faced with evidence of abuse, administrators sometimes fail to let others know about it, and legal loopholes let some offenders stay in the classroom.
"Too often in the past, we as adults have failed our children," Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear said when he signed a new law last month. "Today with this legislation, hopefully, we begin earning back their trust." The measure passed without a single no vote.
Measure targets abuser
Kentucky lawmakers originally drafted a measure aimed at abusive teachers, with the final legislation written broadly to encompass priests, teachers and anyone in authority over someone younger than 18. Besides increasing penalties for abusers and giving prosecutors more time to bring charges, the Kentucky law also takes aim at officials who don't report abuse to authorities.
A nationwide Associated Press investigation, published in October, found 2,570 educators lost their teaching credentials or were otherwise sanctioned from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct. Experts who track sexual abuse say the problem is even bigger than those numbers suggest. Underreporting is common, they say, because victims often are ostracized and accusations are difficult to prove.
The AP series inspired some of the tougher measures, including Utah's legislation to permanently revoke the licenses of sexually abusive teachers and a new Maine law to share information about teachers disciplined for any reason, including sexual misconduct, with other states. A New York lawmaker cited the AP reports when he rallied support to overturn budget cuts that would have sharply reduced funds for investigators who examine abuse claims in school.
Meanwhile, stories on teacher misconduct by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and The Columbus Dispatch sparked action in Florida and Ohio.
New laws also were passed in Kansas, Minnesota and Virginia, while measures are still being considered in California, Colorado, Delaware and Massachusetts. New York and South Carolina began or expanded programs targeting the problem.
Proposals failed to win legislative approval in Indiana, Missouri, South Dakota, Washington state and West Virginia.
The various measures demonstrate the many loopholes that have allowed abusive teachers to remain in the classroom, including:
- Backroom deals. Florida's new ethics law for teachers bars school districts from entering into confidential agreements with teachers who get in trouble. Such deals crop up around the country, allowing schools to remove a problem teacher but letting that educator quietly move on to another district or state.
- Failing to report. Kentucky's law raised the stakes for officials who fail to report allegations of abuse, bringing 90 days in jail for a first offense and up to five years in prison for repeat violations.
- Problem teachers returning to the classroom. Colorado would require any teacher who lost a license for sexual misconduct to promise never to teach again. The measure awaits Gov. Bill Ritter's signature. Virginia closed a gap that made it possible for teachers who abuse students to be hired by another school district in the time between when they are fired and when the state Education Department is notified.
In New York state, Senate Education Committee Chairman Stephen Saland blasted former Gov. Eliot Spitzer for seeking to cut the investigative unit's $1 million budget in half, accusing Spitzer of declaring "open season on children" for sex predators in schools. He read passages from AP stories that showed the number of "moral conduct" accusations against teachers, administrators and aides had doubled in five years.
The legislature rejected the cuts and instead increased funding to $1.6 million. That will allow for hiring eight more investigators and attorneys to tackle more than 800 pending cases, most of them involving sex with students.
"This will move these people out of the classroom environment more quickly," Saland said. "It's money well spent. In fact, it's a bargain."
South Carolina looked beyond punishment, instead creating a statewide training program that aims to instruct 10,000 teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, coaches and school nurses on how to prevent, identify and report cases of abuse.
Beginning this fall, at least one educator from each of the state's 85 school districts will undergo 6 1/2 hours of training by Darkness to Light, a Charleston-based nonprofit organization. Those educators, in turn, will train at least 20 percent of educators in their district. The state has 50,000 educators.
The training will focus not only on stopping sexual predators but on preventing simply inappropriate relationships, said schools Superintendent Jim Rex. Sometimes young, naive teachers do improper things, with no ill will toward the student, and get into trouble, such as texting students' cell phones or giving them a ride home.
"So much of what schools do is based on trust. Not only must kids trust their teachers, but parents have to trust those teachers too," Rex said. "And schools have to earn that trust each and every day."