Public schools have a duty of care to prevent, investigate and report incidents of sexual abuse. If they fall short of satisfying that duty, the victims may be entitled to civil compensation. You may be asking:
Public school cases are more difficult than private school cases. Our experienced attorneys are here to help. Learn more: Child Sexual Abuse: What Are My Legal Options?
According to a comprehensive 2014 study performed by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the majority of the nation’s K-12 schools are sorely lacking in cohesive regulations designed to protect students against the very real threat of sex abuse.
Though a considerable amount of federal support and education regarding child sex abuse is available, schools in many states are unaware of these resources and fail to step up with their own standards, regulations and programs to combat the problem.
As a result, a staggering number of children end up suffering sexual abuse during their K-12 years—nearly 1 in 10 children, according to a 2004 report from the Department of Education.
Though even just one child suffering sexual abuse is unacceptable, such high recorded numbers is truly horrifying and should be considered unconscionable from any trusted public institution for youth.
Child sexual abuse is undoubtedly the most horrendous crime that any family can confront, and many families feel overwhelmed after learning or beginning to suspect that their child has been violated. Just know that your family is not alone. We are here to help. From New Jersey to California, our compassionate attorneys are here to guide your family through this unbelievably difficult situation.
We believe every sexual predator should be punished. We believe every child should be supported, and we know that every family should have their chance at justice. No child should be silenced by fear, or embarrassment, or guilt or confusion. Our youngest sexual abuse survivors deserve to have their voices heard, loud and clear.
One flagship report on sexual crimes in education settings, commissioned by the American Association of University Women, found through surveys that about 1 in 10 children are sexually abused during the K-12 education years.
But since sexual abuse and assault often goes unreported, it’s highly likely the true incidence is much higher. For example, a 2009 study on child sex abuse cited by the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that only about 30% of sexual assault gets reported to law enforcement, child protective services, or other authorities responsible for investigating such crimes.
Even if we don’t know how exactly how widespread child sex abuse in schools really is, the estimates we already have are horrifying enough to many parents across the country, who entrust the safety and well-being of their children to public and private educational institutions, believing them to be an ideal environment for their kids to learn and grow.
When schools fail to protect children from sexual misconduct, they’re committing a grave disservice against our nation’s youth. Sex abuse causes extreme emotional, physical, and psychological trauma, with an often extremely deleterious effect on child development at all levels.
Some of the key findings from the GAO’s report:
There isn’t really a “typical profile” of characteristics that can help us predict who will be a predator—perpetrators of child sex abuse come from all ethnic backgrounds, socioeconomic classes, age groups, and gender identities, according to the Sexual Assault Response Teams Toolkit.
What we do know, however, is that victims of sexual assault and molestation are rarely attacked by strangers—perpetrators are usually someone that victims and their families know, sometimes quite well. That can be deeply-shocking and disgusting for parents, to think that someone you knew and trusted has done something so awful to your child.
Teachers, counselors, coaches, and other prominent figures from schools, even those well-known and highly-esteemed by the local community, may turn out to be child predators. It doesn't help when children are warned to be wary of strangers who may be trying to take advantage of them, but taught to respect and obey authority figures such as teachers without question.
The student-teacher relationship can be an overwhelmingly positive one. Many successful adults credit their lifelong love of learning and passion for their line of work to early encouragement and tutelage from a beloved teacher.
However, teaching positions may also attract predatory pedophiles looking to use the powerful student-teacher dynamic to help them gain access to and influence over children. Also, vocational skills and criminal behavior aren't mutually exclusive—someone who is a legitimately talented and effective teacher can also be a predator.
Ultimately, it’s the school administration’s responsibility to ensure that only individuals who are skilled at instructing, are properly credentialed, possess a clean public record, and have pure intentions towards children will be hired to serve as teachers.
If school officials aren't diligent in holding up these standards in the hiring process, they make it possible for pedophiles, who seek to abuse their power and authority to take advantage of innocence and trust in children, to enter their ranks and put students at risk for sexual assault and molestation.
Children who participate in school athletics and after-school sports programs typically spend many hours training and practicing with their teammates and coaches, both during class and after school, especially before big tournaments and other important sporting events.
This creates opportunities for sports coaches to spend time alone with student athletes and potentially abuse them, if school administrators fail to closely regulate and monitor the conduct of their athletics staff towards students.
In addition to protective regulations, administrators should also ensure that school employees are trained to take notice and inform administration if they notice suspicious behavior that may signal coach sexual abuse, such as coaches obviously favoring one or a few team members, taking their teams on an excessive number of extracurricular trips, or holding too many after-hours practice sessions.
School counselors can serve an important role in a child’s life, offering advice, emotional support, mentorship, and crucial academic, moral, and career guidance. Yet this relationship can be manipulated by predatory individuals to become inappropriately close, potentially leading to sexual abuse, especially if counselors start visiting their mentees outside of school.
Though students aren't likely to have nearly as much direct interaction with administrative staff or maintenance workers as they do with teachers, coaches, and counselors, ineffective or inefficient procedures for vetting potential employees can make it possible for dangerous predators to make their way into other school staff positions as well.
In some shocking cases, even sex offenders who were previously convicted of sex crimes against students manage to pass through screening.
Another important consideration—even if hiring procedures are up-to-par, it’s also vital for schools to have proper surveillance and security measures in place to make sure children can’t be suddenly cornered and attacked in isolated areas of the school grounds.
Schools are responsible for defending students against any potential threats, whether from staff or from fellow students. Sadly, many turn a blind eye to obvious signs of bullying and abuse among students, until it’s too late.
Predators looking for young children may not even need to work at a school in order to target school children, if schools don’t properly secure the grounds around school property.
Though it’s true that many registered sex offenders are prohibited from living near schools, these distance limits vary and may not even apply at all, as they’re based on local laws which can differ considerably from state to state. It’s also common for sex offenders to get these restrictions relaxed—for example, through obtaining stable employment and attending rehabilitation programs.
In any case, school districts need to be wary of individuals who loiter around schools and enact proper security and surveillance measures to defend children against potential predators.
Thankfully, survivors of sexual abuse from their school years have the option of filing civil lawsuits against organizations responsible for facilitating abuse through negligence or concealment of previous incidents of abuse. Here are some recent examples of litigation involving specific school districts:
Back in 2013, the Los Angeles Unified School District faced legal action over sex abuse crises occurring in several schools in the district. The litigation included nearly 100 lawsuits over incidents involving Mark Berndt, a former teacher from Miramonte Elementary School. According to the complaints, Berndt had already been accused of sexual abuse by one female student back in 1993, yet the district did little to further investigate the teacher after that case was dropped.
In fact, local law enforcement wasn’t tipped off to pursue the perpetrator by the school district at all - they learned about the potential abuse from an alarmed local drugstore photo technician who came across photos of blindfolded children later traced to Berndt.
In order to spare the alleged victims the further trauma of participating in trial, the District decided to settle about half of the sex abuse cases. After several months of settlement negotiations, the parties decided on a total settlement of $30 million—roughly $470,000 for each plaintiff in these initial settlements.
Parents and their lawyers fought for these settlement amounts to ensure that the abused children would have access to the years of therapy needed to help them heal from their experiences.
However, lawyers representing the remaining 71 cases from plaintiffs who refused to settle say that while the desire to protect victims from further trauma is admirable, the settlement amounts offered in the early settlements were still much too low to properly compensate the victims for the considerable impact the alleged abuse will have on their lives. Indeed, these attorneys were able to secure much larger settlements from the LAUSD in 2016—an average of $3 million for each family.
In March 2017, the South Bend Community School Corp. in Indiana settled a case filed by a former student of Washington High School over alleged sexual misconduct from a boy’s basketball coach at the school. The student, who was only 15 during the 2009-2010 school year, when the alleged misconduct took place, describes over 30 separate instances of sexual abuse in her 2013 lawsuit.
The final settlement amount negotiated between the plaintiff and SBCSC was only $1.4 million, though she was originally seeking over $20 million.
Every year it seems like several new sports-related sexual assault reports come to light. The sport doesn’t matter – both professional and college level athletes have been accused of using their power and position to assault both men and women. What’s even more disturbing is that frequently others, such as coaches and program coordinators, frequently were aware of the assault and either ignore it or attempt to cover it up.
Recently, the country became aware of the fact that in several states, high schools have been simply brushing off sexual assault on athletes as “hazing”.
In Georgia, no one expected that making the high school baseball team meant that new team members would be brutalized. But as disciplinary proceedings would reveal, that’s exactly what happened.
In 2015, between five and eight of the upperclassmen players on the team broke into the room of several freshmen teammates. Once inside, they attacked several of the younger teammates, including one who was ultimately restrained and had fingers shoved through his shorts and into his rectum. When the team returned home he informed his parents of what had happened and the family reported that he had been sexually assaulted. The school, however, only put into their report that “inappropriate physical contact” had occurred.
What was even more disturbing is that when confronted with the evidence, the upperclassmen involved didn’t disagree with how the evening had transpired, but instead simply said it was all “horseplay”, showing that to them, this was a normal part of being a member of the team. But why would anyone think this is normal?
In another case in Tennessee, a freshman basketball player was held down by his fellow teammates and sexually assaulted using a pool stick. This brave young man came forward and reported the incident to his coach – an adult who should have taken action in the matter. Yet, the coach did nothing and shortly after this horrible event, another boy had a pool stick shoved into his rectum by two teammates. In this case, the violence of the attack resulted in serious damage to his rectum and coaches took him to the emergency room where doctors had to perform surgery to repair the damage.
Still, even after bringing the student to the hospital, the coaches never reported the incident to the police. Instead, a nurse who was aware of the situation called and made the report. Disturbingly, while the boy was in surgery, one of the coaches wives cleaned up and disposed of the boy’s clothing which could have been used as evidence and the head coach informed the team that no one was supposed to talk about what had happened.
Despite the physical and psychological damages, high school athletes are often pressured into staying quiet so that they can “stay” one of the team and it’s not unusual for those who were once victims to turn into the aggressors.
Not to mention the fact, that like the case in Tennessee, a victim may feel like no one will help them when they go to someone who should do everything in their power to protect them but instead become more concerned with covering up evidence and pretending it never happened. It’s not just coaches covering these things up – school administrations are failing to follow the law and report these attacks, often failing to even acknowledge that took place until a victim and their family takes the matter to the press.
Nearly every athletic department has a list of protocols that should be followed if a sexual assault is reported and yet time and time again, these protocols are ignored, making it clear that the department is more interested in the overall success of their program than the victims.
Unfortunately, the only way to make schools comply with their own rules is to go outside of their influence and hire an attorney.
An attorney can not only work to ensure that justice is pursued but that the victim is able to obtain compensation for the trauma they sustained. The victim doesn’t need to worry about their attack being broadcast for the world to see – if they chose, they can remain anonymous, the matter settled in court.