Child sex assault cases are among the most heartbreaking cases we handle. Tragically, they are also one of the most frequent.
When you think of a child pornographer or child molester, what kind of person comes to mind? Do you think of a dirty old man in a wrinkled raincoat lurking around the school playground? For many of us, this is the kind of person we tell our children to avoid when we teach ‘stranger danger.’ But this stereotype distorts what child molesters really look like.
States have recognized that certain persons in positions of authority use and abuse their position to sexually exploit children. As such, every state has laws that criminalize sexual activity between minors and certain people in positions of authority over minors, regardless of whether the minor is above the age of consent. These ‘abuse of position’ laws apply to educators, coaches, school employees, clergy, police officers, and health-care professionals.
A common ‘tool’ utilized by child sex predators is ‘grooming’. Grooming involves using manipulative behaviors to gain access to a potential victim, coerce them to agree to the abuse and reduce the risk of being caught. The offender may assume a caring role, befriend the child, or even exploit their position of trust and authority to groom the child and the child’s family. These individuals may intentionally build relationships with the adults around a child or seek out a child who is less supervised by adults in his or her life. This increases the likelihood that the offender’s time with the child is welcomed or encouraged without suspicion.
As law enforcement officials have come to better understand grooming behaviors and that they are precursors to sexual abuse, laws have been enacted to criminalize them. Many states, as well as the federal government, have enacted various “enticement” statutes that make it a crime for a person to attempt to persuade, induce, lure, coerce, or entice a minor to engage in sexual activity, including soliciting sexually explicit photos of themself.
Sexual Abuse in Schools
It is a parent’s nightmare: you trust your child’s safety to a schoolteacher or coach and then learn, to your horror, that this trust has been betrayed with sexual misconduct. According to the Department of Education, nearly 10% of public school students suffer sexual abuse between kindergarten and twelfth grade. Researchers have suggested that the number of teachers arrested for child sex abuse is just the tip of the iceberg, much like it was for the Catholic Church prior to widespread exposure in the early 2000s. According to research, the scale of sexual abuse in public schools is nearly 100 times greater than that of the Catholic Church.
The imbalance of power between teachers and students is profound. Students lack the age, social status, experience, and sophistication of adults. When students are sexually exploited by teachers, it can have wide-reaching and long-lasting effects. Recognizing this, many states have enacted special laws to protect students from this kind of exploitation. These statutes make it a crime for any teacher, administrator, coach, or other person in authority employed by or serving in a school to engage in sexual contact with a student. This is the case even if the student is above the age of consent.
Duty Owed by Teachers and School Districts
For a better part of a year, children may spend more time in school and school sports than they do at home. When parents place their children in the hands of the school, they have every expectation that the school will not only educate them but also keep them safe from harm. They also expect that if their children are bullied, harassed, or harmed, the school will report and inform them.
These are not only the expectations of parents and children, but also the expectations of the state and federal governments. The government imposes specific legal obligations upon teachers and schools to protect the safety, welfare, and well-being of students under their care. This is legally referred to as the school’s “duty of care.”
Under the law, teachers and schools have a legal duty to take or exercise ‘reasonable care’ to protect students from risks of harm that are ‘reasonably foreseeable’ while the students are at school or involved in school activities. This includes:
▪ taking reasonable care for the health and safety of students;
▪ taking reasonable care to prevent discrimination and harassment of students; and
▪ a mandatory duty to report suspected or actual sexual abuse.
Liability for Schools and Teachers for Student Sexual Abuse
Generally, public schools and school employees are entitled to what’s referred to as “qualified” governmental immunity. This immunity states that the government (including school districts) and its employees may be shielded from a lawsuit, even though their actions (or inaction) resulted in harm, injuries, or death. There are different and often complex rules that determine when this immunity exists.
Schools and their employees are often granted immunity from negligence claims. The purpose is to protect their ability to provide a public education without the threat or distraction of lawsuits
However, this immunity is ‘qualified’ and there are exceptions. For instance, a school and its employees have a duty to take reasonable steps to protect students from physical or mental harm. As related to protecting students from sexual abuse, schools must take care not to hire or retain employees who may pose a risk of inappropriate sexual conduct with students. Educators and other staff are not protected from immunity laws if they engage in any sexual conduct with students. School employees who sexually exploit children not only face criminal charges, but also face civil liability, both under state and federal law.
Likewise, schools and educators who fail to protect students from sexual harassment or abuse from other students could also face civil liability.
Reach Out to Boyk Law for Help After Sexual Assault or Abuse
We understand that coming forward after experiencing sexual assault or abuse is scary. If you or your loved one needs help, reach out to our compassionate team for guidance in pursuing the justice you deserve.