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Are 10 percent of American students sexually victimized at school?

Today's Philadelphia Daily News has an op-ed from Terri Miller, president of SESAME Inc.--an acronym for "Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation"--about how we need to do more to protect our children from predators like Jerry Sandusky. No problem there: Who disagrees with that?

But one thing she said in the op-ed jumped out at me: "Overall, an estimated 1 in 10 students will be the victim of educator sexual misconduct during their school career, a ratio that equals about 4.5 million current K-12 students."

This appears to be a statistic she uses regularly: She also used it during testimony before Congress in support of the Jeremy Bell Act, which requires schools to report suspected incidents of educator sexual misconduct.

If she's right, then American parents need to press the panic button: 10 percent of all students are being sexually victimized at school? That's a huge problem, one that would--should--be devastating to the very system of public education itself if true.

One problem: It may not be true. Here's a Slate piece from February explaining where that number comes from.
The best available study suggests that about 10 percent of students suffer some form of sexual abuse during their school careers. In the 2000 report, commissioned by the American Association of University Women, surveyors asked students between eighth and 11th grades whether they had ever experienced inappropriate sexual conduct at school. The list of such conduct included lewd comments, exposure to pornography, peeping in the locker room, and sexual touching or grabbing. Around one in 10 students said they had been the victim of one or more such things from a teacher or other school employee, and two-thirds of those reported the incident involved physical contact. If these numbers are representative of the student population nationwide, 4.5 million students currently in grades K-12 have suffered some form of sexual abuse by an educator, and more than 3 million have experienced sexual touching or assault. This number would include both inappropriate romantic relationships between teachers and upperclassmen, and outright pedophilia.

These statistics are uncertain, however, because no one has ever designed a nationwide study for the expressed purpose of measuring the prevalence of sexual abuse by educators. The Departments of Justice, Education, and Health and Human Services can’t agree on whose domain teacher sexual misconduct falls into, and Congress has shown little appetite to spend money on the issue. In the study described above, surveyors asked participants if they had ever experienced sexual improprieties at school, then asked students who reported abuse to identify the perpetrator. Since the study was intended to measure student-to-student sexual misconduct, the original investigators didn’t focus on teacher-offenders. A third-party academic later used the raw data to suss out the prevalence of teacher sex abuse. A few smaller or less methodologically rigorous studies have also addressed the question, with wildly inconsistent results. One looked at college sociology students and estimated that nearly half had experienced sexual harassment by a teacher. Another surveyed 4,000 adults, with 4.1 percent reporting inappropriate sexual contact with a teacher during their high-school years. But the sample included only urbanites, and white respondents were overrepresented. A third study used responses to a questionnaire published in Seventeen magazine and estimated that just 3.7 percent of children suffer sexual abuse from their teachers.
In other words: Miller uses the biggest and most-inflammatory number to make her case--but it's a number that, once examined, seems a bit less of a sure thing. I'm not saying that 10 percent of American students aren't victimized by educators; I'm saying that a 12-year-old study that wasn't intended to measure that particular problem may not be a totally reliable piece of evidence.

We do need to understand the extent of this problem, and root it out where possible. But there's something about Miller's number that smells like the hype and scare-mongering of the 1980s child-molestation terror epidemic. That turned out to be overblown. Jerry Sandusky taught us--again--that we need to take allegations very seriously. That doesn't mean we have to resort to hysteria. 

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