Education is a noble profession, and society places a great deal of trust in those who dedicate their lives to teaching children. Unfortunately, a small percentage of those educators use their position of power to sexually exploit their students. While it is assumed that men are often responsible for this type of behavior, in recent years, a number of high-profile cases of female educator sexual misconduct have been covered by the media.
“Educator sexual misconduct” is a term used to describe “behavior by an educator that is directed at a student and intended to sexually arouse or titillate the educator or the child.”2 The word “educator” not only includes classroom teachers but also coaches, counselors, administrators, tutors, and aides. Victims include students up through 12th grade. This misconduct pertains to any physical, verbal, or visual (such as showing pornography) sexual behavior between educator and student.
Following a federal mandate to investigate this topic, the US Department of Education published a literature review of educator sexual misconduct synthesized by Charol Shakeshaft in 2004. According to her analysis, 9.6% of high school students have experienced some form of educator sexual misconduct during their school career. The offenders were most commonly teachers or coaches, whose positions allowed them to spend increased individual time with particular students.3,4 Across 7 studies, the sex of the offender varied significantly; although the majority were men, 4% to 43% were women.3-10 The offenders ranged in age from 21 to 75 years, with a mean age of 28.8
The sex of the victim was somewhat less variable than that of the offender: 54% to 77% of the victims were female and 23% to 46% were male.3-8,10 Same-sex abuse was in the minority. In 13% of cases, female teachers abused female students.3-6,10 Within samples of victims, overrepresented minorities included black, Hispanic, and Native American children.3,4 Children with disabilities were at increased risk for sexual abuse because of greater individualized attention and because of their possible difficulties with communication.2
What the teacher is, is more important than what [s]he teaches.1
—Karl Menninger, MD
“Grooming” describes the process in which the offender lures the victim into the sexual abuse. Given their level of interaction with students, educators are in a unique position to do this. Grooming can also serve to make the student feel complicit in the behavior.11 A teacher may provide the student with increased attention while slowly initiating sexual behavior, including asking questions about the student’s sexuality or increasing general physical contact. The rewards and extra attention are meant to aid in the attachment of the child (and potentially the child’s parents) to the teacher, while the behavior tests the student’s ability to keep a secret and be compliant with the wishes of the abuser.
Borderline inappropriate acts may also desensitize the child to the commencement of more overt sexual activity. To maintain the relationship, the educator may resort to manipulation, exploitation, or intimidation—including the loss of the contact with the educator (which the child may value) or threatening academic or other consequences for revealing the nature of their contact.2
A number of features may distinguish students who fall victim to educator sexual misconduct. These youths are often isolated from their peers and their families, which makes the abuse less likely to be detected. They may be shy and quiet, which makes them easier to control and less likely to disclose the abuse to an adult. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the victims may be troublemakers who, on the basis of their past behavior, are not likely to be believed by authorities even if they do report the abuse.10,11
Women account for fewer than 10% of all arrests made for sexual offenses.12 It is strongly suspected that this figure represents an underestimate of the actual number of crimes that occur. For example, 60% to 80% of men sexually abused during their childhood identified a female perpetrator.13-15 Female sex offenders are often white, have a history of substance use, and have been victims of sexual abuse themselves. They often commit the crimes in their 20s and 30s.16
Several typologies assist in understanding these offenders. One of the categories, the “teacher/lover,” describes women who assert that they are educating their victims about sex as part of a consensual relationship. They often claim that their behavior does not constitute abuse.17 “Heterosexual nurturers” are women who develop sexual relationships with children and adolescents on the basis of feelings of love or a desire for intimacy. These women also often mistakenly assert that their behavior is not abusive.18
Educators working in primary education (K-12) who engage in sexual activity with their students can be categorized by the age of their victims.2 The first group consists of those who sexually abuse elementary schoolchildren. These individuals are frequently considered high achievers in their profession. They may have won awards highlighting their outstanding teaching abilities and are frequently well liked by both students and parents. The educators may use this positive standing to become close to students (and their families) and increase their ability to surreptitiously engage in sexual relationships with the children. These traits make the revelation of their aberrant behavior all the more shocking to the community, and allegations may be initially overlooked on the basis of the teachers’ reputations. In addition, these educators also have the potential to serially reoffend when they move to another location if they are relieved of their present teaching position.
The second group includes educators who sexually abuse older students. Their abuse tends to be unplanned and the result of immaturity and bad judgment rather than the premeditated behavior repeated with multiple victims that typifies the former group.