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Sexual abuse in schools poses a risk that spans various stages of development, from early childhood through adolescence and even into adulthood. Perpetrators of school sexual abuse frequently engage in a process of “testing” and “grooming” their victims, establishing trust with the ultimate intention of exploitation. The grooming tactics employed by perpetrators can create confusion for victims, leading to feelings of shame that often deter them from reporting the abuse. The prevalence of unreported cases makes it challenging to determine the overall number of individuals subjected to sexual abuse by teachers, coaches, school staff, and fellow students, but it’s likely not insignificant. 

Over half of the reported sexual assaults target individuals aged 12 to 24. Victims within the middle school, high school, and college-age range frequently opt not to report these crimes to law enforcement. Instead, they rely on their educational institutions as trusted entities, seeking redress or justice through the institution’s disciplinary procedures.

Regrettably, many of these schools and colleges often fall short in addressing campus sexual violence. This failure can be attributed to insufficient policies, preferential treatment of specific perpetrators (such as athletes or members of high-profile fraternities), or a reluctance to adhere to mandated procedures.

While many states mandate the reporting of sexual abuse from teachers and other school staff, it’s essential to first understand and recognize the signs of sexual abuse in school environments. School staff, parents, and student peers are on the front lines, and noticing these signs is paramount.

Types of Sexual Abuse in Schools

Ensuring the safety of children must be the top priority in public schools. Unfortunately, an increasing number of public school teachers, coaches, administrators, and staff members have gained notoriety for mistreating students under their supervision. Alarmingly, instances arise where school administrators and teachers’ unions have concealed, downplayed, or overlooked such abuses.

Likewise, the sexual abuse of children in private schools frequently involves religious institutions and other charitable organizations. In tightly-knit parochial or private schools, there’s often a prevailing belief among parents that “everyone knows everybody,” there’s a communal watchfulness over each other’s children, and the notion that abuse “doesn’t happen here.” However, it’s crucial to recognize that child sexual abuse can occur in any type of school, whether public or private. Regrettably, the established trust and perceived high morality of religious authorities, teachers, and staff members can sometimes be exploited.

Students enrolled in boarding schools or colleges often reside in on-campus dormitories or residences throughout the school session. Teachers, school administrators, and coaches assume roles akin to surrogate parents, spending a significant portion of the day with these students, and some may also oversee them during the night. This heightened level of access increases the likelihood of sexual abuse in the school setting. Shielded within the confines of a reputable institution, sexual predators may exploit this access, potentially abusing numerous students over an extended duration. Given that boarding school students spend the majority of their time away from family and hometown friends, they are often less inclined to report instances of abuse.

10 Signs of Sexual Abuse in Schools

1. Behavioral Changes:

  • Sudden shifts in behavior, such as becoming withdrawn or overly clingy.
  • Unexplained aggression, anger, or rebelliousness.
  • Drastic changes in academic performance.

2. Emotional Changes:

  • Depression or anxiety that wasn’t present before.
  • Mood swings or emotional outbursts.
  • Fear or avoidance of specific people or places.

3. Physical Symptoms:

  • Unexplained pain, itching, or bleeding in the genital or anal areas.
  • Frequent complaints of stomach aches or headaches.
  • Changes in eating habits, either overeating or loss of appetite.

4. Sleep Disturbances:

  • Nightmares or night terrors.
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep.

5. Regression:

  • Reverting to behaviors typical of a younger age, such as bedwetting or thumb-sucking.

6. Sexualized Behavior:

  • Acting out sexually with peers or toys.
  • Inappropriate knowledge or interest in sexual activities for their age.

7. Fear or Avoidance:

  • Fear of specific individuals or reluctance to be alone with certain people.
  • Avoidance of specific activities or places.

8. Social Changes:

  • Withdrawal from friends or social activities.
  • Difficulty trusting others or forming close relationships.

9. Self-Harm or Suicidal Thoughts:

  • Engaging in self-destructive behaviors.
  • Expressing thoughts of self-harm or suicide.

10. Unusual Knowledge or Language:

  • Displaying knowledge of sexual acts beyond what is developmentally appropriate.
  • Using age-inappropriate sexual language.

Preventing Sexual Abuse in Schools

There are steps that parents and educators can take to prevent sexual abuse in schools. It’s extremely important to make students aware of the problem and educate them and their parents on the signs above. Open communication is paramount in creating an environment where students feel comfortable expressing their concerns. 

One thing is certain – initiating legal proceedings against both perpetrators and institutions communicates a resolute stance of zero tolerance toward sexual abuse. This action holds wrongdoers responsible, serves as a formidable deterrent to potential offenders, and establishes an unwavering precedent that deems sexual abuse unequivocally unacceptable.

Legal Recourse

In addition to their core responsibility of offering legal guidance, sexual abuse lawyers act as steadfast support for the victim. They recognize that sexual abuse cases demand more than just legal expertise—they require empathy, respect, and an unwavering dedication to advocating for the survivor. Being heard, understood, and believed can profoundly contribute to a survivor’s healing journey. Their representation becomes a source of empowerment, enabling victims to reclaim control over their narratives and lives. Moreover, a committed lawyer will take measures to minimize the risk of re-traumatization.

Although no level of compensation can erase the pain and trauma, it’s evident that many survivors encounter economic challenges as a result of sexual abuse. The cumulative impact of medical expenses, therapy costs, and lost wages can impose a significant and unjust financial burden on the survivor. Compensation serves as a means to alleviate some of these pressures, enabling survivors to concentrate on their healing without the added strain of financial concerns. In certain cases, aside from compensatory damages, punitive damages may be granted. These punitive damages are bestowed in civil cases to penalize the defendant for exceptionally egregious behavior and to discourage others from partaking in similar conduct.

Beyond seeking financial justice, victims may pursue other forms of redress. They might seek an apology from the perpetrator or institution, recognizing their responsibility for the inflicted harm and validating the victim’s emotions. Additionally, victims may aim for the disclosure of information about the perpetrator or organization, raising awareness about sexual abuse and illuminating its scope. This contributes to broader societal awareness and prevention initiatives. It has the potential to drive policy changes, fostering safer environments and aiding in the prevention of future abuse.

With the assistance of committed attorneys specializing in sexual abuse in schools, victims can embark on their path toward justice, empowerment, and healing.

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Peter Janci

Peter has represented more than one hundred victims of sexual abuse over nearly a decade. In Spring of 2010, Peter Janci served as part of the Plaintiff’s trial team in Kerry Lewis v. Boy Scouts of America — a child sexual abuse trial in Portland, Oregon that resulted in a $19.9 million verdict for the Plaintiff. Peter has tried a number of jury and bench trials, in addition to representing clients at arbitration and meditation. Peter has also helped obtain dozens of other significant settlements for other survivors of sexual abuse.