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Schools can do more to prevent sexual abuse, GAO report finds

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Last fall, Miramonte Elementary School teacher Mark Berndt pleaded no contest to charges of lewd acts on children.

Parents were especially devastated because they believe LA Unified should have removed Berndt after earlier allegations of sexual abuse had surfaced.

In 1993, a female student accused Berndt of fondling her, but the case was dropped after investigators determined there was insufficient evidence.

Incomplete background checks, cover ups and a lack of training are just a few of the ways in which schools are failing to protect students from sexual abuse, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

For more, we're joined by Kay Brown, director at the GAO's Education Workforce and Income Security Team.


How was the report conducted?

We conducted a survey of 50 states and the District of Columbia and the education agencies there and visited six school districts in four states.

What were the report takeaways?

There are a number of things school districts could do to both identify and prevent child sexual abuse by their school personnel and also some support that the federal government can provide them to help them address this serious problem. 

How prevalent is sexual misconduct in schools?

We really don’t know the answer to that. A number of federal agencies collect data on different types of crimes in schools and ages of children but none of the data sets we looked at allowed us to get down to the point where we could say the perpetrator of this abuse was school personnel. So that’s one of our recommendations in the report is to take a better look at the data available.

Sometimes staff is not reporting abuse because they are confused as to what to do. Talk about that.

Sometimes there’s a lack of awareness or uncertainty about what actually constitutes abuse and that’s because there are often behaviors by personnel that are signals that they might be intending to develop a relationship of trust with a child and those may not be obvious to a school personnel initially unless they have training that would help them understand that.

What kind of clues can school personnel look for?

Things like teachers developing very close and perhaps inappropriate relationships with students or groups of students. Teachers having interactions with students behind closed doors or locked doors. Teachers inappropriately engaging in social media with students.

What if personnel are worried about falsely accusing someone?

The experts tell us that awareness training is a really important factor here and we found only 18 states are conducting this training. That can help with a couple things: One, who is mandated to report according to state law and that often includes a teacher, who they should be reporting to and what types of behaviors to report. 

Often really good training contains scenarios that help teachers identify, “Oh that might be what I’m seeing and it’s not necessarily a good idea.” 

What is being done to address sexual misconduct in schools?

When we visited the school districts that had experienced some problems in the past they were tightening up their systems. They were finding different ways to do background checks or more complete background checks. They were relying on codes of conduct that would clearly define inappropriate behavior and the consequences and they were beefing up their awareness training so school personnel could better understand what their responsibilities are.

What can parents do if they suspect a school employee is being inappropriate with their child?

Parents should feel free to speak up and report their suspicions not only to school personnel but also reach out to law enforcement and child protective services in their community. 

To access the GAO report, Federal Agencies Can Better Support State Efforts to
Prevent and Respond to Sexual Abuse by School Personnel.