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Bill raises questions about how best to protect our children

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Our job at EdNC is to ask questions. Our reporting and research has surfaced a number of questions about House Bill 142, which proposes to further criminalize indecent liberties taken with students by school personnel and criminalizes failures by school personnel to report such incidents.

These questions range from the data being relied on in this conversation, to potential unintended consequences, to local responsibility and state oversight, to whether a more holistic approach is warranted.

You can see the scope of the proposed changes to law in this bill summary. This bill was filed last week, and Superintendent Catherine Truitt testified about it to the House K-12 education committee on Tuesday.

Some acknowledgments before we get to the questions we hope advocates, the media, and policymakers will consider.

Truitt testified, “I know the issue of sexual misconduct is not something the vast majority of our schools or districts face regularly.”

She also said, “I firmly believe that one violation is too many.”

Violence against our children — be it physical, sexual, or emotional — is never OK.

If we agree that one violation is too many, which we assume we do, then the scope of the conversation needs to be considered.

Violence against our children is not OK in any setting, from the home to the church to the school to other community settings.

It is not OK in any school setting, including public, private, parochial, virtual, or home schools.

It is not OK by any perpetrator, from parents to pastors to teachers.

Children cannot and should not be expected to navigate the positions of power and trust that adults in their lives hold.

Given state appropriations and the responsibility educators have in place of parents when students are in the building, parents have a reasonable expectation that if they entrust their students to any school receiving taxpayer dollars, their children will be safe.

The conversation about indecent liberties

How we have this conversation matters. If the result of this legislation — regardless of the reasons — pushes more good educators out of our schools, we may inadvertently increase the risk for our students.

This conversation should not come as a surprise.

Whenever there are societal disruptions — from wars to pandemics to natural disasters — the attendant stress and isolation, among other factors, often increase all types of unwanted behaviors. Children are all too often the victim.

In our travels, for example, we see this after flooding, when the local rates of incest rise as families are displaced and forced to seek refuge together.

During the pandemic, we anticipated that data might show that rates of abuse within families increased during COVID when schools were closed to in-person learning. We anticipated that data might show that rates between educators and students dropped.

We also anticipated that as educators returned to their classrooms and schools, the rates might be higher than expected due to stress and isolation, among other factors.

Proximity matters for this crime.

How we have this conversation also matters because teachers and parents and community members all serve as checks on one another when it comes to reporting these crimes.

Policies and laws are generally designed to encourage over-reporting because every child matters, and our laws are based on what is in the best interests of children.

It is easy to believe that violence against children happens because there are bad humans amongst us. But it is way more complicated than that.

Different types of violence are perpetrated across all age ranges of our children, and this happens not just in North Carolina but worldwide.

Courtesy of the World Health Organization

The root causes are complicated, and public policies addressing violence against children need to take individual, relational, community, and societal causes into account.

Courtesy of the World Health Organization

The process of abuse is also complicated, often preceded by “sexual grooming.” According to the American Bar Association, “sexual grooming is a preparatory process in which a perpetrator gradually gains a person’s or organization’s trust with the intent to be sexually abusive.” It may include “targeting the victim, securing access to and isolating the victim, gaining the victim’s trust, and controlling and concealing the relationship.”

And now the abuse can happen in person or via technology including online, on social media, and on cell phones.

North Carolina could model its work to protect children based on the INSPIRE approach of the World Health Organization, which includes:

  • Establishing protecting children as a priority across all settings by all offenders.
  • Including all state agencies involved.
  • Developing a comprehensive, multi-sector plan, including better data collection.
  • Identifying evidence-based strategies, targeting implementation and enforcement of the laws and policies; norms and values; safe environments; parent and caregiver support; income and economic strengthening; response and support services; education and life skills.

Beyond a cross-sector approach, educators, superintendents, and school boards need to be involved in this conversation. Many of our policymakers believe “good government rules closest to home.” 

“The safety of students is among the top priorities of local boards of education, which recognize the value and importance of policies preventing grooming and sexual assaults in the school setting,” says Leanne Winner, executive director of the N.C. School Boards Association.

The balance between local responsibility and state oversight is an important consideration in this conversation.

Do we have good student data?

Google it and you will find time and time again — including in this 2017 report by Magnolia Consulting — that 1 in 10 students are exposed to sexual misconduct by a teacher sometime between kindergarten and graduation.

This figure comes from a 2004 report based on data collected in 2000. The methodology is described in the 2004 report on pages 16-18. Click on that link, and take a look at those pages please.

The first thing you will note is that the 1 in 10 number is not found in the 2004 report. Over time advocates, researchers, and policymakers rounded up from 9.6 to get to 1 in 10.

That is important because the other thing that advocates, researchers, and policymakers did overtime is take the 1 in 10 and apply it to school populations to guesstimate the number of students. The rounding up could lead to an overestimate if applied to a student population in a school, district, or state.

If and when the 1 in 10 number is used, it should be noted that it applies to a range of behaviors from the inappropriate, like comments, jokes, gestures, or even a look, to the criminal.

Here is the survey question that was asked of 2,065 8th-11th graders in 80,000 schools across the nation in 2000:

During your whole school life, how often, if at all, has anyone (this includes students, teachers, other school employees, or anyone else) done the following things to you when you did not want them to?

  • Made sexual comments, jokes, gestures, or looks.
  • Showed, gave or left you sexual pictures, photographs, illustrations, messages, or notes.
  • Wrote sexual messages/graffiti about you on bathroom walls, in locker rooms, etc.
  • Spread sexual rumors about you.
  • Said you were gay or a lesbian.
  • Spied on you as you dressed or showered at school.
  • Flashed or “mooned” you.
  • Touched, grabbed, or pinched you in a sexual way.
  • Intentionally brushed up against you in a sexual way.
  • Pulled at your clothing in a sexual way.
  • Pulled off or down your clothing.
  • Blocked your way or cornered you in a sexual way.
  • Forced you to kiss him/her.
  • Forced you to do something sexual, other than kissing.

A follow-up question in the survey included identifying the role of the offender. The author of the report then discloses, “To get a sense of the extent of the number of students who have been targets of educator sexual misconduct, I applied the percent of students who report experiencing educator sexual misconduct to the population of all K-12 students,” which she admits was “based on the assumption that the AAUW surveys accurately represent the experiences of all K-12 students.” Extrapolating the data to all 8th-11th grades nationwide would have been one thing, extrapolating to all K-12 students was a stretch.

The author then provides a list of reasons why she thought, if anything, the data was underreported, but the list included the following admissions:

  • Students report on their entire school career, thus making it difficult to determine prevalence by year or grade.
  • Sample includes only 8th- to 11th-graders which might miss earlier incidents not remembered later.
  • Questions on educator sexual misconduct are limited.
  • Analysis was broad-brushed and cursory, excluding many details of educator sexual misconduct.
  • Survey only asked about incidents that were unwanted, excluding reports of misconduct that were either welcome or that did not fall into either a welcome or unwelcome category.

This data was collected 23 years ago. The survey question was beyond broad, asking students to remember their “whole school life,” including behaviors from the inappropriate to the criminal. The data was extrapolated from 8th through 11th graders to all K-12 students. Problems with the data existed and were admitted, but seem to have been lost over time.

Public policies are better crafted when informed by good data. How can we get some?

What do we know about teacher license revocations?

To find data about teacher license revocations, visit the homepage of the Department of Public Instruction (DPI), click “About DPI” in the upper right hand corner and then click State Board of Education from the drop down menu.

On the right hand side, click “Legal Affairs” and then click “Revoked License,” also found on the right hand side. This will bring you to a site where you can find the grounds for suspending or revoking a teacher’s license, as well as data for over 1,000 disciplinary actions against teachers from 1977 to 2022. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page, then you can export the data into a spreadsheet to take a look yourself.

Our analysis looks at the data between 2016-2022, when 240 licenses were revoked. See that data here. Of those offenses, we find that 143 were the result of indecent liberties taken with a student or minor. See that data here.

Superintendent Catherine Truitt testified at the legislature that by DPI’s count, there were 124. So our data is close. If anything, EdNC was over inclusive in our data analysis.

The reporting of different types of violations is not standardized, which complicates the ability to determine which were in fact the result of indecent liberties. The 143 incidents EdNC isolated encompass violations ranging from sexual exploitation or assault of a student, teacher-student sexual relationships, inappropriate communications with students outside of the classroom, inappropriate physical encounters with students, sharing or taking pornographic images of/with students, crimes against nature, and alleged inappropriate behaviors with students.

If a violation for assault was not specified as being of a physical or sexual nature, we included it. If a violation for inappropriate behavior did not specify the nature of the behavior, be it sexual or otherwise, we included it. Other vague categories in the data were the dissemination of obscene material, the delinquency of a minor, and child sex crimes. These were also included.

The violations we filtered out in the data as not being the result of indecent liberties include felony convictions such as larceny, inappropriate use of school funds, falsified background information provided to a school, sexual misconduct against a coworker or other adult, physical assault against students or adults, failure to report knowledge of inappropriate behavior of colleagues with students, DUIs, intoxication while on the job, drug offenses, and inappropriate management of the classroom. 

Using that methodology, we found:

In 2022, there were 8 revocations for indecent liberties.

In 2021, there were 17.

In 2020, there were 16.

In 2019, there were 26.

In 2018, there were 27.

In 2017, there were 21.

In 2016, there were 28.

For context, in 2022-23, there are 92,681 licensed teachers working in our public schools, according to NC DPI’s Statistical Profile. We’ve requested confirmation from DPI on the number of licensed educators, and we will update this article with that information if we hear back.

Do the math, and if you took the number of revocations from the highest year, the percent is .00030211.

How many convictions are there statewide?

Superintendent Truitt noted that “these numbers only include licensed education professionals and do not include other personnel who are employed on school grounds.”

She finds that a “quick Internet search reveals about 20 more people have been convicted between 2016 and 2022 of sexual abuse against students.”

Truitt also said, “Additionally, news reporting from 2022 indicates that there are over 50 school personnel, both licensed and non licensed, who are currently facing charges, have charges pending, or who are actively being investigated by local law enforcement for sexual misconduct against students. As there has been no formal action taken against them yet because they are enjoying due process, they are not included in the prior count of license revocations, suspensions or voluntary surrenders. However, these individuals have, in every case we are aware of, been fired or have resigned from their employment with the public school or charter school where they have been working.”

For context, in 2022-23, there are 173,833 administrators, teachers, professionals, and other workers in our public schools.

Does North Carolina’s Administrative Office of the Courts track these convictions, and if not, could they? Better data is warranted, and this is why a cross-sector approach matters.

Even if all of those news reports are substantiated, what could be the unintended consequences of further criminalization, and are they worth it in light of the number of revocations and convictions?

Is further criminalization likely to lead to the intended result? One thing we know is that criminalizing behaviors doesn’t serve as a deterrent if we don’t educate people about the laws and the consequences.

What is the plan to increase awareness of inappropriate behaviors versus criminal behaviors, and the consequences of both, to both prevent and deter violence? Are resources being requested to fund awareness?

Are there other public policy changes at the district and state level that would accomplish the same result? Research identifies all of the following as effective strategies to prevent or respond to incidents: “1) be proactive, 2) develop clear and comprehensive policies and procedures, 3) improve communication about policies and procedures, 4) offer annual in-person staff, student, and parent trainings, 5) have clear guidance for reporting procedures, 6) develop protocols and checklists, 7) establish accountability measures, 8) have strong leaders communicate and enforce policies and procedures, and 9) develop collaborative relationships with criminal justice and child welfare agencies.”

Should these be considered first? What do superintendents and principals believe would help increase awareness and prevention of this crime?

How should we think about complaints?

It is hard to read the headlines when complaints are filed. We read them all too often in the morning as we aggregate headlines.

And there is a reason in our legal system that people are innocent until proven guilty and deserve due process.

We know policies need to be crafted to encourage over reporting — better to be safe than sorry if a student is at risk.

And we need to remember that when complaints are investigated and unfounded, the damage to the educator, the school community, and the district still can be extraordinary.

What are the best practices for prevention and investigation at school?

Schooling is compulsory in North Carolina, and for the 1,025 hours that children are in our public classrooms each year and teachers stand in loco parentis, or in the place of parents, students and their parents deserve to know they are safe.

Federal laws apply, and since 2011 and this “Dear Colleague” letter from the U.S. Department of Education, Title IX has been interpreted “to impose new mandates related to the procedures by which educational institutions investigate, adjudicate, and resolve allegations of student-on-student sexual misconduct.” Districts have Title IX coordinators who handle complaints.

State laws apply, and Session Law 2015-44 — entitled the Protect Our Students Act — “increased the criminal penalty for the commission of certain sex offenses committed against a student by a person who is school personnel and establishes a procedure for institutions of higher education to obtain a list of students and employees at the institution who are registered as sex offenders,” according to the bill summary.

Here is the current law on sexual activity with a student in North Carolina, N.C. General Statute section 14-27.32.

If HB 142 moves forward, should there be a requirement for DPI to educate educators about the changes and the consequences?

We know policies need to be crafted to prevent what is referred to as “passing the trash” — which includes practices allowing “a known sexual predator to quietly leave a school district without record, allowing the offender to seek work in another school setting.”

Policies and enforcement need to be consistent across all school districts, including:

  • District policies on sexual harassment, including interactions on social media.
  • Hiring practices, which include background checks.
  • Mandatory onboarding and ongoing training for all staff with specific attention to student groups more likely to be victimized like those in special education and with disabilities;
  • mandatory student education, including about N.C. DPI’s “Say Something Anonymous Reporting System.”
  • Mandatory reporting.
  • How allegations are investigated.
  • Defining noncriminal consequences of inappropriate behavior.
  • Supporting students, educators, and parents in the aftermath of substantiated abuse.
  • District transparency, which includes communication to parents or other caregivers but also should require annual disclosure to the public.

Given that one child is too many, should private schools that accept Opportunity Scholarships be held to the same standards given the investment of taxpayer dollars?

How should intent be assessed in sexual grooming cases?

Often when principals or superintendents receive reports of sexual misconduct, there is evidence. There are texts or photos or other kinds of proof that inform whether the employee is fired immediately, suspended with or without pay, and referred to local law enforcement for charges.

For complaints of sexual grooming, this can be more complicated.

Research indicates the importance of strong student-teacher relationships in motivation and learning.

Because sexual grooming behaviors can be similar to behaviors research finds critical between educators and students, the mens rea — or intent — of the adult is important.

While courts are equipped to assess mens rea in criminal proceedings, it can be harder for schools and districts to assess intent during investigations.

Because state of mind has to be considered in sexual grooming allegations, often it is better for more than one person to be involved and training in assessing intent is important.

Should districts consider creating child protection teams trained to consider intent when sexual grooming is alleged? This could include the Title IX coordinator and other school-based staff, such as counselors, social workers, and nurses; school leadership; district leadership; as well as legal counsel.

How should teachers report suspected abuse outside the school setting?

Because our students spend the other 7,735 hours of their year outside the classroom and the school, teachers need to be trained to report suspected neglect and abuse by parents and caregivers — see this Texas school employees guide, for example.

The Texas guide says, “Teachers, administrators, and other school employees are all in a position to make a direct and positive difference in a child’s life by learning how to recognize and report child abuse and neglect. You play an important role in a child’s life and often represent a safe place for child victims to disclose abuse, particularly when the abuse occurs in the home. It is important to understand the signs and symptoms of abuse and how to report it. If you see something or suspect abuse, report it.”

In 2020, nearly one in 100 children in North Carolina experienced substantiated abuse or neglect by their parents, guardians, or caretakers, according to data from the N.C. Departments of Health and Human Services and Social Services.

Sadly, violence against children happens not just in our homes and all kinds of schools, it also happens in our churches, in community sports, in summer camps, anywhere and everywhere that children find themselves in a position of trust and power with an adult.

Protecting children requires a comprehensive approach across all settings by all offenders, and it requires teachers, parents, and community members to all serve as checks on each other.

What other questions are there?

These are the questions we had when we read the reporting and research by our team followed up with interviews of superintendents. What questions do you have?

Other resources

To learn more about ending violence against children in all settings by all offenders, start here:

Here is INSPIRE: Seven strategies for ending violence against children.

Here you can read more about the purpose of sexual grooming and the behaviors associated with sexual grooming.

The N.C. School Boards Association shared these draft policies: Title IX sexual harassment: prohibited conduct and reporting process; Title IX sexual harassment definitions; Title IX sexual harassment grievance process; staff and student relations; and employee use of social media.

Here is information about considerations for districts wanting to craft policies, from the 2016 White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. Here are the findings, challenges and recommendations of “A Case Study of K-12 School Employee Sexual Misconduct” by Magnolia Consulting, which addresses policies and procedures, prevention, training, reporting, investigations, and responses. Here is Union County’s Title IX information page, as an example. Here is the Guilford and County Schools Student and Parent Handbook, as an example.

Here is USA Today’s 2016 reporting on background checks.

Here are the recommendations from the 2015 North Carolina Coalition for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse.

Here is the 2010 report on teacher licensure and ethics that is now worth another look.

Here is Learning Courage’s best practices in sexual misconduct policies and procedures.

Here is information about the national “Enough Abuse” campaign.

Here is information from Darkness to Light, a nonprofit committed to empowering adults to prevent child sexual abuse.

Here is information about S.E.S.A.M.E., which stands for stop educator sexual abuse misconduct and exploitation.

Here is more information from the Innocent Lives Foundation.

What happens next?

EdNC’s Alex Granados will take the lead on reporting on how HB 142 makes its way through the legislature. Stay tuned.

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC.

Alessandra Quattrocchi

Alessandra Quattrocchi is an executive fellow at EducationNC.