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The Problem of Sexual Assault in K-12 Schools and What's Being Done to Curb It

For students like Chaz Wing and Daisy Coleman, the sexual assault they endured brought with it pain that lingered on long after the assault ended. Isolation from peers, ridicule by adults and school administrators, and sleepless nights followed, all creating unhappy kids who no longer felt safe at school. “It’s been hard. She quit cheerleading, and she's come to the conclusion that she is not going to be able to have some magical high school experience,” Daisy’s mother, Melinda Coleman told U.S. News. “There’s too much water under the bridge.”

While sexual assault cases like the Stanford University rape case of last year became hot topics in the press, sexual assault cases in K-12 schools often fail to generate as much attention, despite being a persistent problem. A year-long investigation by The Associated Press uncovered 17,000 official reports of sex assaults by students in K-12 schools over a four-year period, from fall 2011 to spring 2015. It’s the most complete tally of reported sexual assault cases among our nation’s 50 million K-12 students, but because many states don’t track them and those that do can vary greatly in what is classified as a sexual assault, the estimate can be blurry. Add on to that the cases that don’t get reported and the number becomes even more vague.

What’s perhaps most concerning is how different the legalities are for reporting sexual assault cases at federally funded colleges versus K-12 schools. ​Federally funded colleges are required to track sexual assault report statistics under the Clery Act, but elementary and secondary schools aren’t required to track such data. Often times there is a pressure to even hide it because acknowledging such incidents can bring about a nightmare of liabilities. This head in the sand and pretending there isn’t a problem approach though undoubtedly does harm and creates an unsafe learning environment.

Sexual assault cases ranging from rape and forced oral sex to sodomy and unwanted fondling can be difficult for schools, because they so often go unreported. When they are reported it often happens in areas where students might be out of visual supervision such as in school bathrooms or the back of buses. And without a witness it becomes an accuser versus the accused situation.

Among female rape victims 30 percent say they were first raped between the ages of 11 and 17 according to data from the CDC. While this doesn’t exclude sexual assaults outside of the school and ones that were perpetrated by adults, the AP’s study found that regarding school sexual assault cases, student-on-student assaults were far more prevalent than adult-on-student cases.

“About 5 percent of the sexual violence involved 5- and 6-year-olds. But the numbers increased significantly between ages 10 and 11 — about the time many students start their middle-school years — and continued rising up until age 14. They then dropped as students progressed through their high school years.”

All of this has both parents and school officials asking how can this be handled better and what can be done to quell it?

Sexual abuse prevention advocates say lessons need to be taught earlier rather than later and that waiting until high school or college is just way too late. "It just makes sense when kids go through puberty, that's when their ideas about sex and beliefs and behaviors are forming, so that's really a critical period," Paul Schewe, a professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago who studies violence prevention told NPR.

Of course many elementary schoolers are taught as young as kindergarten what is and is not appropriate touching, so perhaps a solution to the problem also lies in how schools handle and report such cases.

Strides are being made in the issue though. So far 20 states have passed Erin’s Law, which requires public K-12 schools to teach students how to come forward if they’ve been sexually assaulted and improved training for staff on how to handle such cases.

Nearly everyone from mental health experts to school administrators and parents can agree that it’s not just one person’s problem and that it will take a community effort to make schools safer for students.


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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