Schools Need to Stand Up to Sexual Assault

System of reporting cases needs serious improvement

Schoolhouse Sex Assault By The Numbers

Remember back in school when you were told that if you were being bullied, talk to a teacher or administrator and don’t keep quiet about it?

Apparently, that rule doesn’t apply to many schools themselves.

And sadly, this is not about bullying in the conventional way we think of. It’s a much more sinister form of bullying — sexual assault.

Yes, a term we probably associate more with college campuses is in fact no rarity in secondary education settings. And no, we’re not talking about teacher-and-student situations.

An extraordinary investigative report by The Associated Press released last month uncovered roughly 17,000 official reports of sexual assaults of students by students between fall 2011 to spring 2015, 147 of them were in New York state. Remember, those are just the ones that are actually reported.

After the privacy of homes, schools are the second most frequent place where children are sexually assaulted by their peers.

Yes. Schools, places of innocence, places where children spend 10,000 hours between kindergarten and graduation, places where parents believe their kids to be safe, are in fact the site of many dark secrets.

The information AP reported was just as chilling as it was stunning. Here’s just a little of what was discovered.

• Student sexual assault cases happened everywhere, from upper-class suburbs to rural areas.
• All types of children were vulnerable, not just ones who have trouble fitting in.
• Five percent of sexual violence involved 5-and 6-year-olds. The percentage increased significantly between ages 10 and 11 and peaked at 14.
• Peer-on-peer assaults are actually much more common than those by teachers. For every sexual assault reported on school grounds that involved an adult, there were seven by students.

Now, this is not the peck on the lips behind the cubbies we’re talking about. Unwanted fondling was the most common form of assault, but about 20 percent of students assaulted were raped, sodomized or penetrated with an object, the AP found.

The only thing more disgusting than all of that is many schools’ incredible inability to thoroughly address this problem, both overall and on a case-by-case basis. Some have even tried to cover it up, withholding information or hiding evidence.

For instance, parents of a girl who was sexually assaulted in an Iowa school in 2013 didn’t report the incident to police because the elementary school principal said he would take care of it.

He never did.

And many of the schools that do report these cases greatly misconstrue the details. Many reports AP found that involved rape or forced oral sex were often labeled by school administrations as bullying, hazing or consensual behavior.

It’s all about preserving the image, right? No school wants to be known as the one with a lot of sexual assaults among young children. No school wants to be seen in community newspapers that parents are filing lawsuits against them because their middle school-aged child was raped on a school bus or in a locker room.

Well, while schools are busy saving face, they are betraying their most crucial task — ensuring a safe environment for student learning. They are damaging students’ childhoods, hindering their futures and betraying a community of parents who trust these institutions with their children’s lives and wellbeing, all the while ignoring bullies accused of a criminal act. Clearly, there needs to be more transparency and better responses regarding this topic.

So what needs to change?

To start, there is no federal mandate to track sexual violence in schools, though 32 states, including New York, do. However, New York does not verify what individual schools and districts report such cases.

We force college campuses to keep a public crime log, send emergency alerts about sexual assaults, train staff and aid victims. While taking care to protect victims, why can’t such standards be included in middle and high school?

New York currently also tracks cases in two different categories: sexual penetration, with or without a weapon, and other types of inappropriate sexual contact with a weapon. The state is currently in the process of amending that so that all sexually-related incidents are grouped into one category. Let’s hope other states can produce similar rules.

Maybe most importantly is the need to require training aimed at preventing or responding to student-on-student sexual assault — another item New York doesn’t currently mandate. It is bad enough for any student to go through any kind of unwanted sexual ordeal. But just imagine a child who’s just been sexually assaulted and has found the courage to speak out about it, but teachers and administrators don’t believe them or believe that child is just being “oversensitive,” as some have claimed.

In many cases, such a scenario might occur because that teacher or administrator wouldn’t know how to properly handle that because they simply don’t know how to.

When we come to a point where schools can no longer help a student, then we know it’s time for something to change.

While new federal and state measures would be helpful, the last defense will always be the individual schools themselves. Laws don’t patrol hallways or cafeterias on a daily basis, after all.

Schools should take the responsibility of reporting and combating sexual assault seriously. It might be happening in yours. There’s likely much more going on that we don’t know about than what we do. And when it involves our youth, that’s something we cannot take lightly.

Luke Parsnow is the Monday Editor and daily copy editor/page designer at The Post-Star, a Pulitzer-Prize winning daily publication located in Glens Falls, New York. You can follow his blog “Things That Matter” by clicking “Follow” below and follow his updates on Twitter at https://twitter.com/coolhand_luke88

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