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GAO: Gaps Undercut Reporting of Child Sexual Abuse in Schools

Patchwork system, involvement of numerous agencies hamper reporting of crimes against K-12 students, government report finds.

Sexual abuse of children by teachers or other public school employees is likely underestimated because of a patchwork reporting system and involvement of numerous local, state and federal agencies in investigating such claims, according to a new government report obtained exclusively by NBC News.

The report by the Government Accountability Office, released Thursday, raises numerous questions about how closely public schools are following federal requirements for mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse allegations or suspicions involving the public school employees who oversee the 50 million children enrolled in the nation’s public K-12 schools. The report also raises doubts about the accuracy of the data on the scope of the problem.

"While Education, HHS and Justice all have data systems that capture information from state and local entities about child abuse, none capture(s) the extent of sexual abuse and misconduct perpetrated by public K-12 school personnel," the report said.

One key issue is who receives reports from educators. Under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, each state is required to have a law for mandatory reporting requirements, along with procedures for screening and investigating reports. Most states require that allegations be reported to a state or local child protection service, the GAO report said, while about two-thirds designated law enforcement (there was overlap in the two categories).

"I was quite stunned by the fact that there's still several states that don't have that requirement to report to law enforcement," said Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who requested the report. "They report to each other but that doesn't necessarily solve the problem. It may in fact lead to problems."

Even when state law requires reports to be made to outside agencies, sometimes the information never goes beyond a school district, the report said – whether because of uncertainty about whether a report is necessary, delays in reporting or outright failure to report allegations or suspicions of abuse. Miller said such confusion was unacceptable.

"Many school districts believe they just have a need to report to their school principal, to the superintendent of the school," Miller told NBC News. "They don't recognize that under state law, where they have the laws, they have an obligation to report this to law enforcement officials."

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The GAO report cites a case in which an elementary school teacher who had been suspected of inappropriate behavior in one district was allowed to resign, then went to work at a school in another district. After he again was accused of inappropriate behavior, school officials in the new district investigated but then reported to the parents that the investigation had been closed. Only when a teacher reported rumors to her police officer husband did a criminal investigation begin: The teacher eventually pleaded guilty to eight counts of aggravated sexual abuse in the second district and two counts in the first district. Neither district reported the allegations to state authorities.

The GAO report does not name the school where the abuse occurred or the teacher, but by comparing details from the GAO report with published accounts NBC News identified it as a case involving the Urbana, Ill., school district and Jon White, who was sentenced in 2008 to 60 years in prison.

The Urbana school district superintendent and the elementary school principal were convicted of misdemeanors for not reporting the allegations, and the district’s human resources officer pleaded guilty to the same charge. All received sentences of court supervision and community service, and all retired after the police investigation began. The former principal and former HR director declined to comment to NBC News. The former superintendent did not respond to a request for comment.

Urbana attorney Tom Bruno, who represented three of the families who sued the school district after their daughters were abused, said the law on reporting requirements is clear enough – as long as it’s followed.

"Why struggle so hard to say 'I was confused about my duty to report'? Just report it," he told NBC News. "There's no punishment for reporting a suspicion that turns out to be nothing."

Bruno said the families are still grappling with the psychological effect on their daughters.

"I'm not sure they know the damage yet," he said. "It might be analogous to being exposed to a toxic chemical. You sit back and hope that 20 years from now nothing bad is going to happen. But you just don't know."

The GAO report found that the confusion involved not only state laws but also the reporting requirements under Title IX, part of the federal education law that prohibits sex discrimination -- including sexual harassment -- in federally funded education programs. Investigators visited school districts in several states and found that some were interpreting Title IX to include mandatory reporting of adult-to-adult or student-to-student incidents, but not adult-to-student incidents.

GAO investigators said they also found that most states do not require training of educators on sexual abuse, even though experts say it's critical to preventing abuse. The report said such training might keep school officials from discounting their own suspicions or observations. Such was the case in Urbana, said Denny Mickunas, a plaintiffs personal injury attorney who assisted Bruno in the lawsuits.

"They essentially blew off those complaints," he said. "As with many pedophiles, Jon White was very adept at manipulating not only children but the adults around them."

There was a discrepancy in the report about how many states make reporting mandatory for educators. "According to GAO's survey, 46 states have laws that require school personnel to report child abuse and designate the agency that investigates reports (local law enforcement and/or child protection services (CPS), and 43 establish penalties for not reporting," the report said. But the five states identified by GAO staff as having responded "no" or not having responded to the survey questions do indeed have such laws. It was unclear if the responses were a result of the wording of the questions, a misunderstanding of the questions or some other issue.

The GAO report said its survey found that background checks were the primary tool used by states to prevent sexual abuse, but the report added that there was wide variation in what those checks encompassed. Five states reported having no background checks for school employees, the report said. Six reported consulting only state law enforcement data, and three said they consulted only federal data.

Forty-two states reported having professional standards or codes of conduct, and 22 of those reported that those codes helped to define boundaries between students and teachers or staff, including the use of cell phones and social media. Fifteen states said they specifically address "grooming" – "behavior intended to establish trust with a student to facilitate future sexual activity."

The report says the federal government, led by the education secretary, should:

  • Develop comprehensive materials for states, districts and schools that outline steps to prevent and respond to child sexual abuse by school personnel.
  • Identify mechanisms to better track and analyze the prevalence of child sexual abuse by school personnel through existing federal data collection systems.
  • Clarify responsibilities of personnel in public K-12 schools under Title IX.

In a letter responding to the GAO, the Education Department said it:

  • Was "taking action to revise its Adult Sexual Misconduct training module … to target a wider audience, including school volunteers."
  • Would "explore methods to track and analyze the prevalence of child sexual abuse by school personnel."
  • Would make clear that Title IX applies to sexual harassment at K-12 schools and prohibits sexual harassment of students by school employees.

The department also said "it is vital that all states have a policy requiring background checks of all adults working with students."

Neither the Justice Department nor Health and Human Services provided formal responses to the GAO.