In the wake of the controversy surrounding Florida’s Parental Rights in Education legislation, which prohibits public schools from teaching gender identity and sexual orientation in kindergarten through third grade, the national media has sought to paint conservative opposition as hysterical, anti-LGBTQ, and conspiracy-minded. The New York Times, for example, accused conservatives of having a “freakout” about imaginary “grooming” in public schools, and the Washington Post dismissed concerns about sexual abuse by teachers as a “QAnon conspiracy.”
But whatever the editorialists at the Times and the Post might say, the facts reveal that too many American public schools have been hunting grounds for sexual predators. Parents fearful about abuse in schools are not falling victim to a “moral panic” or “QAnon messaging”; they are using their intuition to assess a real danger to their children. The most comprehensive report about sexual abuse in public schools, published by the Department of Education in 2004, estimates—on the basis of a 2000 survey, conducted by the American Association of University Women, of 2,065 students in grades eight through 11—that nearly 10 percent of K-12 students have been victims of sexual misconduct by a public school employee. Assuming that figure is accurate, this would translate into an approximately 4.5 million children nationwide suffering sexual misconduct by public school employees, with an estimated 3 million suffering physical sexual abuse—a number, according to the author of the study, Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft, more than 100 times greater than the physical abuse committed by Catholic priests, who, at the time the report was published, were undergoing a reckoning for the crimes within their ranks.
Despite these numbers, the story vanished. A few media outlets covered the report and interviewed Professor Shakeshaft, but no national outcry followed. Two years later, CBS News published an article asking whether the media had “ignored sex abuse in schools” altogether. With little public pressure to make changes, the public school system has continued to operate with very low standards of enforcement and accountability. Local newspapers continue to report on teachers who are caught sexually abusing students. Some districts simply move abusers from school to school, where they are able to exploit children again. Today, if the Department of Education statistics still obtain, one could estimate that 5 million students are currently being sexually harassed, manipulated, and abused in America’s public school system.
Parents have good reason, therefore, to fear “grooming” in public schools. Indeed, in 2014, the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office published a lengthy report warning that public school employees were “grooming” students “with the intent to perpetrate future sexual abuse or misconduct.” In the GAO research, these educators first exhibit a pattern of “grooming behaviors”—for example, lavishing a target with gifts and extra attention—then move to the “sexual misconduct” and “sexual abuse” phases, in which they begin sexually-charged communication and, in many cases, explicit sexual contact with the child. According to the report, only 15 states had adopted policies to regulate “grooming behaviors” by school employees and only 18 states require “awareness and prevention training on sexual abuse or misconduct by school personnel against students.”
The parents’ movement, which has recently mobilized against critical race theory, should not hesitate to add this issue to its list of concerns. Families should be skeptical of introducing sexuality into the classroom at young ages, especially if teachers are permitted to keep those conversations a secret. A better policy would be to mandate total transparency and require that teachers notify and gain the approval of parents before engaging in any sexual conversation with children. Additionally, families should have better tools to report abuse and public schools should have mandatory screening, training, and reporting requirements for all staff.
Any institution that assumes the care of children is a natural target for adults with ill intent. In recent years, the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, and other institutions have all been rightly exposed for a record of horrible abuse. As attention turns to the public schools, parents should demand that legislators and administrators focus on making schools safe, secure, and transparent places for children to learn basic academic skills and prepare for adulthood. That is the bare minimum standard—and sadly, schools will require significant changes to meet it.