There’s a banner that hangs outside of Costa Mesa’s (California) Whittier Elementary School. Its slogan— Children are our first priority—is a painfully ironic reminder of one of the biggest problems plaguing our public schools.
That problem is child sexual abuse by public school employees—an epidemic that is raging out of control.
Don’t believe it’s a problem? Here are some recent stories that should change your mind.
In 2010 in Davis, California, six-year-old special needs student “Nancy Doe” was allegedly molested by a school bus driver. The incidents were captured on video. When district officials finally viewed the video, the driver was allowed to quietly resign. After spending four years exhausting all of their options and continually butting heads with district officials and lawyers, Nancy’s parents finally had to sue the district this week—four years after the abuse—to get a copy of the tape and expose the driver who molested their child.
The LA Unified sex abuse scandal is just as horrifying. In civil lawsuits following the 2012 conviction of teacher Mark Berndt, victims’ attorneys discovered that allegations against Berndt went back to the late 1980s and that the LAUSD had destroyed evidence and documents pertaining to past allegations. And don’t forget: Berndt was given $40,000 to quit his job, even though he molested countless impoverished children.
Orange County is not immune. A number of teachers in the county have been arrested since the first of the year, including two LA female teachers who hosted what some are calling a “beach sex party” with students in San Clemente.
Where is the outrage? Why are we not learning more about school employees who are arrested for abuse? What about school district officials who know about these predators but do nothing? Why aren’t we having in-depth investigations and document exposés like we see in the Catholic Church?
The answer is simple: we have bad laws—bolstered by big money and teachers’ unions—that leave parents without viable options and children at risk of abuse.
Even when laws to protect children are proposed, teachers’ unions and others have used their deep pockets to scuttle legislation that threatens any teacher’s job—even if that teacher is a criminal. A prime example is a 2012 California bill that would have allowed school boards to immediately suspend teachers or administrators (without pay) who engaged in sexual violence and other criminal behavior. The bill died, voted down by union-backed legislators.
But unions are not the only bad guys. The state is riddled with bad civil laws that protect public schools from being held responsible for child sexual abuse. According to a recent study by the Associated Press, these bad laws allow “passing the trash” —that is, allowing accused teachers to quietly move to other schools and districts. Why? Because of regulations that require allegations against teachers to be expunged, short statutes of limitation for abuse and reporting, and additional protections for public entities (hence the reason we see lawsuits against private schools and not public schools). The result? Predators stay in classrooms and victims have little to no recourse.
Even if a student reports abuse, parents are caught in a Faustian bargain: to get the education their child needs, parents have little choice but to keep their child in the school where the abuse occurred. Sure, parents can attempt civil action—if the abuse is reported in time—but that is where their choices end. If they don’t have money to send their child to private school or cannot move, many parents have no other options.
For special needs children, the stakes are even higher: with no other access to funding for the services their child needs, parents are “held captive” in the same public school system that allowed the abuse to occur.
If we truly want public schools where children are the first priority, we must push lawmakers to hold public educators and districts fully accountable for the safety of every child in public education. We must strengthen our reporting laws, require better training, and give victims a greater ability to use the civil system to expose cover-up and “passing the trash.”
Children must be our first priority. And it’s time for the California legislature and every district in the state to remember that public school students should ALWAYS be protected over deep-pocketed interests, criminal behavior, or the status quo.