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June 30, 2004

A BAD problem

But also a problem with a bad definition

A report by Hofstra University researcher Charol Shakeshaft (no jokes, please) estimates that approximately 1 in 10 students suffer some form of inappropriate sexual conduct by teachers and other school personnel during their time in school. Another researcher, Robert Shoop of Kansas State University, suggest that the estimate may be too low due to the historical underreporting of such offenses.

This study is not based on new research, but is instead an extrapolation from earlier research by the American Association of University Women and other researchers.

Needless to say, there is outrage on the part of teachers groups, lawmakers, and others concerned with education.

But there is a problem with the data. Or more accurately, with the characterization of the data and the definition used of sexual misconduct. The report certainly categorizes molestation and rape as sexual misconduct, but it also expands the definition to include telling a dirty joke or conduct that might qualify as sexual harassment.

And I guess this is where my problem with the study arises. Does a problem exist with sexual abuse in schools? You bet it does. I've worked in a school where the guidance counselor divorced his wife in March and ran off with the valedictorian to get married in Vegas the day after graduation, only to have a baby in November. And we will never forget Mary Kay what's-her-name getting knocked up by her middle school beau. Folks like that need to be ruthlessly exposed and put where they can never harm a child.

But there is behavior which is less egregious that got lumped together with such misdeeds. And I don't mean to minimize inappropriate conduct, but it trivializes the truly serious incidents to put garden-variety inappropriate comments and looks in the same category as sleeping with a student. And since there was no new research conducted, and no standardization of methodology, I wonder about the validity of the study's conclusions.

But my biggest fear of all is that we are about to see a witch hunt very like that which has so recently taken place in the Catholic Church. I fear that the whisper of an allegation will be as good as a conviction, and that good teachers will be destroyed by misguided zealots armed with this study. Call me paranoid if you will -- but I watched the "guilty until proven innocent" standard take hold a dozen years ago, and remember the mantra that "the victim must always be believed." I saw Crucible-style justice meted out, with one dear friend utterly destroyed because a parent made an accusation that the alleged-victim (by this time in his mid-20s) vehemently denied.

I would rather not relive those days.





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