Have Teacher-Student Sex Crimes Become A National Crisis?

Movie still from "The Teacher."
Jan 30, 2015 at 12:12 PM ET

In 2014 alone, the media reported nearly 800 sex crimes against students by school employees in the United States, an average of 15 per week. The perpetrators were math teachers and choir directors, football coaches and teachers of the year. They were male and female, married and single, and all of them preyed on the very children they were paid to nurture and protect.

Terry Abbott, a public relations executive and former chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Education, has spent the past year combing through news reports of these cases with his PR firm, Drive West Communications, in an unprecedented effort that has generated some seriously troubling results. Throughout his long career in education, Abbott would hear about teachers sexually victimizing students from time to time, but nothing could prepare him for a number as high as 781 in a single year.

To put that statistic in perspective, according to a review by America’s Catholic bishops, 4,400 priests were accused of molesting minors from 1950 to 2002, which is an average of 84 per year.

“School districts need to take this issue seriously,” Abbott says over the phone from an education conference in Austin, Texas. “They need to understand that this is a real issue, a crisis, and they need to attack it as such.”

We should point out that Abbott’s data is not wholly inclusive, as it was gleaned solely from media reports. However, this also means it’s likely an underestimate, since over 90 percent of child sex crimes go unreported. “I suppose the problem is a whole lot bigger than we are even able to measure at this point,” he says.

In fact, Abbott’s research points to these types of cases being on the rise. In Abbott’s home state of Texas, which saw the most teacher-student sexual misconduct in 2014 (116 cases), investigations grew 27 percent over three years. And in Alabama, the state with the greatest number of cases per capita, state investigations tripled in just four years.

Astonishingly, there is currently no nationwide database that keeps track of these types of crimes. Nor is there a federal law to legislate them—what might be illegal in one state can be legal in another. For example, in Michigan all sexual relationships between students and teachers are illegal, regardless of age. But in Wyoming, as long as a student is at least 16 years old and actively consents, it is not considered a crime. This lack of legal consensus allows many cases to slip through the cracks, and can contribute to the failures of some school districts to adequately prosecute teacher-offenders.

Instead of reporting the crime to the police, schools will deal with the issue internally by either firing the school employee or letting them resign, rather than having their teaching license suspended. The employee is then free to move on to another school or state and continue preying on students—a phenomenon so common that educators have taken to calling it “passing the trash.”

Many school administrators also fail to understand the gravity of student-sex victimization on the whole, which is the primary reason why Abbott began compiling the data. “It’s not being talked about enough,” he says. “I can tell that when I go out and tell school leaders about the extent of the problem and they are just shocked. I look out across the audience, and I am amazed by how many of them are sitting there with their mouths open.”

Jim Clemente, a retired FBI special agent, prosecutor, criminal profiler and an expert in child sex crimes, is familiar with this kind of bewilderment. “Here’s the problem,” he says. “Most teachers are wonderful people. They know their motivations—to help children and be role models—so they look to the teacher next to them and just assume that they have the same motivations.” On top of that, child sexual victimization is still a largely taboo subject. “People don’t want to talk about it. And that’s the easiest way for sex offenders to get away with their crimes.”

Clemente is also quick to note that sex offenders are typically the last people you’d expect—schoolteachers not least among them. “We need to stop frightening people with the word ‘predator’ because it causes us to look right past the men or women with smiles on their faces,” he says. “Most offenders are nice people, professional, good at what they do and loving toward children.”

He even has a name for these types of perpetrators, which he calls “nice guy/gal acquaintance offenders,” and describes them as “much more prevalent, effective and prolific” than your stereotypical creepy stranger hanging out near the school playground.

Read through a few recent news reports of teacher-student sex crimes, and you’ll undoubtedly come across phrases such as “kind,” “popular” or “well-liked” in descriptions of teacher-turned-criminals. “I have arrested some ‘teachers of the year’ over the course of my career,” Clemente says. “The ones who have the most victims are often the most popular.”

This rosy and beneficent demeanor is also how these kinds of offenders are able to accomplish their crimes and manage to get away with them for so long. Using a technique called grooming, offenders seek out vulnerable children and endear themselves to them by offering up tangible and emotional gifts. They also use this technique on the victim’s family and the surrounding community to make themselves appear like good and honest people. The ultimate effect is something Clemente calls “compliant victimization,” in which victims begin to look up to perpetrators, crave their attention and are shamed into keeping their silence.

Today social media and personal cellphones have only added to the arsenal of tools sexual predators have at their disposal, and according to Abbott, these modern conveniences are making it even easier for teachers to reel in their victims. According to his research, 36 percent of teachers accused or convicted of having an inappropriate relationship with a student used social media to initiate or carry out their crimes, though he suspects the statistic is much higher since not all news stories report specific details about whether or not Facebook and text messaging were used.

“Social media is the single greatest driver of this problem right now,” says Abbott. “It’s helping to tear down the wall that used to exist between the private lives of teachers and the private lives of students, and provides instantaneous access to students who teachers may want to prey on.”

In a case this week, Stephanie McCrea, a 35-year-old drama teacher in Vancouver, Washington, was found to have created fake Facebook profiles so she could communicate with her 15-year-old victim in private. She was arrested Tuesday on four counts of child rape. And in a 2012 case that eventually evolved into a sex orgy involving four high school seniors, Brittni Colleps, a 28-year-old Texas English teacher, initiated contact with one of her victims through a harmless text message that read, “What time is the baseball game today?” It’s common technique, according to Abbott. “Very often they start with the simplest of text messages,” he says.

It should go without saying that these cases are incredibly traumatic for both the victim and the perpetrator, but for some reason, there persists the misguided belief that these “relationships” should be seen as fist-bumping triumphs of some kind, especially if the perpetrator is a young, attractive woman and the victim is a male student. But as any former victim will tell you, this notion is far from reality.

In October, a male victim of rape by a female teacher killed himself seven years after his initial report to the school district superintendent failed to lead to her arrest, and in 2014, eight different teachers accused of being in relationships with students eventually committed suicide. “These are devastating, life-alternating and sometimes life-ending crimes,” says Abbott.

The question is: In an age where covert communication is easier than ever and children are sexualized at increasingly early ages, how do we go about combatting the issue?

Abbott believes there should be stronger minimum sentences for teachers who commit sex crimes against students, as well as rules governing social media communication between students and teachers—and a zero-tolerance policy for those who break the rules. There are also changes we need to make as a society, beginning with letting go of our squeamishness of an open dialogue between adults and kids about sex.

“We have to let go of our need to protect and insulate our children to keep them innocent,” says Clemente. “Children have to feel comfortable talking to their parents about sex and vice versa. If children don’t have this outlet they become more vulnerable.”

There should also be resources at every school district in the country to support victims and their families, working to encourage them to come forward. As Clemente, who is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse himself, says, “We as a community have to decide that we are going to stop treating this issue as taboo and start preventing these crimes by making it not a big deal to disclose them.”