Chapter III: Extent and Nature of Teacher-Student Sexual Misconduct

Introduction

This chapter examines what is known from the research literature and the reported cases about educator sexual misconduct towards students, including the nature and extent of the misconduct, the characteristics of offenders and victims, student disclosures of offences, and the impact of teacher sexual misconduct on students. Certain myths or stereotypical assumptions which serve to hinder effective identification and prevention are also examined. These include the notion that truthful disclosures will be immediate, that only a pedophile would sexually abuse a young child, and that outwardly minor offences cannot leave emotional consequences that extend into adulthood.

Prevalence of Teacher-Student Misconduct

Studying covert behaviour is never easy because numerous cases are never discovered by authorities. Many cases remain undisclosed. Even where complaints are disclosed, it may not be possible to substantiate them, even if truthful.

However, during the course of this review, accounts of teacher-student sexual misconduct in Ontario and Canada, as documented in reported criminal cases, disciplinary and arbitration decisions and media accounts, indicate the following:

  • Between 1989 and 1996, over 100 cases of sexual misconduct by teachers involving students were dealt with by the Ontario Teachers' Federation.
  • Since assuming jurisdiction over teacher discipline from the OTF in 1997, the Ontario College of Teachers has dealt with about 20 such cases.
  • There have been approximately 100 reported cases in Canada since 1986 of criminal proceedings against teachers, principals, volunteers and other school employees. Many cases, including guilty pleas, go unreported. The DeLuca case is an example.
  • The news media provide accounts of cases that often do not appear in print anywhere else. A media search revealed a substantial number of cases of teachers charged with or convicted of sexual abuse of students. Indeed, since the review began, reports have appeared with alarming frequency in our daily newspapers of criminal and disciplinary cases against teachers for sexual offences against students. Twelve separate examples of Ontario cases are summarized in the Report.

Moreover, a number of studies from the United States indicate that a high number of students report having been the target of some sort of sexual misconduct by a teacher.

As both teachers' unions and school boards have properly stressed, the incidence of sexual misconduct is small relative to the large number of teachers and students in our school system. However, the incidence is certainly frequent enough and serious enough to deserve more attention than it presently receives.

Characteristics of Teacher-Student Misconduct

It is evident from the relevant research literature that there is no typical offence or offender. While sexual misconduct by teachers is perpetrated overwhelmingly by males, and overwhelmingly against females, it occurs in all combinations of gender. There is no single "molester profile", and the origins of sexually abusive behaviours vary. The popular conception that anyone who sexually abuses a child is a pedophile is simply wrong. In fact, teachers who engage in sexual misconduct with children and adolescents are not pedophiles in most cases. Terms such as "boundary violators", "romantic/bad judgment abusers" or "situational offenders" have been used to describe different types of abusers.

Disclosure by Victimized Students

Students abused by teachers probably delay disclosure by reason of deference to an authority figure, embarrassment, guilt and fear--fear of retaliation by the offender, fear that no one will believe them, fear of being blamed and fear of some sort of punishment. A child's desire to comply with the requests of an adult he or she trusts and by whom he or she wishes to be accepted is another inhibitor of disclosure. The genuine affection a child may have for the teacher, especially one who promotes the "special relationship" and who has spent a great deal of time in the grooming phase, should not be underestimated. Studies of child disclosure have contributed greatly to our understanding of disclosure. For example, it is estimated that only 30 percent of sexually abused children disclose their abuse during their childhoods.

Effects of Sexual Abuse on Students

The impact of sexual victimization on children has been widely researched and reported on in the mental health literature. The impact is often less correlated with the severity or intrusiveness of the sexual behaviour than with the pre-abuse relationship to the abuser, the vulnerability of the victim or the way in which disclosure of abuse was responded to. Accordingly, a seemingly minor incident of sexual touching by a close and trusted adult can have a profound and lasting impact.

It must be concluded that the DeLuca case is neither aberrant or out of date. Teacher sexual misconduct is sufficiently prevalent to warrant special attention. Arguments to the contrary should not be allowed to forestall efforts to understand the problem, and actively address it.