Experts Weigh in on Efforts to Protect CPS Students From Sexual Abuse

In the wake of the Chicago Tribune series, “Betrayed,” which revealed hundreds of incidents where school and district leaders failed to follow proper reporting procedures when educators sexually abuse students, Chicago Public Schools has taken steps to correct its practices.

In June, CPS announced it would create an Office of Student Protections and Title IX with a budget of $3 million and 20 staff positions, according to a recent Chicago Tribune story. The office will be responsible for both staff training and coordinating responses to incidents of sexual assault and abuse, including reporting them to police and child welfare investigators.

The district has taken further steps to change how cases of child sexual abuse in schools are investigated–providing training to ensure school staff report all suspected abuse to the Department of Children and Family Services, as required by state law, and shifting responsibility away from its own law department–a conflict of interest–to the CPS Office of the Inspector General, the independent body that investigates misconduct and mismanagement in the district.

Today, CEO Janice Jackson will be speaking at the City Club about the district’s efforts to address sexual abuse, as well as announcing the hiring of 250 new social workers and special education case managers. She’s very likely to be asked questions about the district’s continuing response to the Trib’s revelations regarding child sexual abuse, too. (Update: while the City Club audience did not ask questions on the topic after her remarks, the toughest grilling she received was from talk show radio host William Kelly during a brief Q and A with press after the event.)

As both a reporter and the mom of a CPS student, I wanted to know what experts thought about the steps the district is taking. So I spent most of last week reading policy papers and speaking with experts. (See the end of this post for full bios of the experts I spoke with.)

Here’s what I learned.

There’s no model district leading the way. No single school districts has a complete model of best practices for others to follow. Most districts keep their heads in the sand on this issue until they are forced to confront the problem of educators sexually abusing students, either because of lawsuits or media exposure. Or both, as in Chicago’s case.

“What you’re seeing in Chicago is what happens in most places,” said Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who has developed a standard of care for preK-12 districts in preventing and addressing educator sexual abuse of children. Given that the state of action in most districts is terrible, she gives Chicago a certain amount of credit for its rapid response.

“Let’s put aside that for every place it should have been done 20 years ago,” she said. “They’re doing something now and it looks like a comprehensive approach. That should be praised, and it should be kept going.”

Shakeshaft is launching a study of districts that have changed policies as a result of lawsuits, including the suburban community of Chappaqua, New York.

Background checks matter, but screening new hires also demands more than that. Background checks are an important tool that CPS is wise to invest in. “Those will help you with coaches. Coaches are a big issue,” Shakeshaft said. “They’re not supervised well. They often don’t get training at all.”

Maryland’s Alvaro applauded the district’s decision to re-check employees who have already had checks done and suggested two refinements Chicago could make to ensure background checks dig deep on candidates: check for records with child protective services in Wisconsin and Indiana as well as Illinois and update federal criminal background checks regularly using the FBI’s new service, Rap Back, which automatically updates background checks if there is a new arrest. “That’s the gold standard,” Alvaro said. (But civil rights groups warn that Rap Back could open up dismissed charges, arrests at political protests and other non-germane issues to employer review.)

But there’s more to do in hiring than just checking for criminal records.
“So often on reference checks they don’t ask the right questions. They don’t call and find out why the person really left,” Shakeshaft said. CDC said call and talk to people—you get more out of that than from a written reference.

A multi-pronged approach is necessary, and training for staff and students must be a top priority. Improved reporting, the new Title IX office, background checks and greater support for students who have experienced sexual abuse are all important steps to prevent and address the problem. No single step will be effective in isolation, experts agree. And more may come when former U.S. assistant attorney Maggie Hickey finishes her review of the district’s policies and practices and offers recommendations, expected in August.

But it takes universal, high-quality training to make the big shifts in culture around observing and reporting boundary-crossing behavior that can keep kids safe. “All the pieces are important but if there were one piece I had to pick as the highest priority, training would be that piece,” Shakeshaft said.

Training is key, and districts often underinvest in it. Already, comments from both Jackson and Chicago Teachers Union vice-president Jesse Sharkey suggest there is much work to be done to change mindsets across the district to protect students.

In late June, Jackson was quoted as saying staff in schools are already familiar with “grooming” and inappropriate behavior staff may engage in with students. “We’ve all worked in schools, we all know what it looks like when it’s not right.” Although she later acknowledged that many abusers “know how to make things look normal,” experts disagreed with the notion that school staff intuitively know what inappropriate behavior looks like.

Sharkey raised concerns that tutoring students one-on-one after school could cause teachers to be falsely suspected of inappropriate behavior. “We’re going to need real clarity on those things,” he noted.

Shakeshaft agreed that spelling out concrete examples of appropriate and inappropriate behavior is important. “We have to teach people exactly what they should and shouldn’t do. And we have to train bystanders to see [boundary-crossing behavior] and know they should report it.” Districts should also make very clear that bystanders who don’t report suspected abuse will also face consequences, she added.

Alvaro recommended the district adopt an employee code of conduct that explictly references inappropriate behavior, like the code she advocated for that was adopted by the Montgomery County Public Schools.

Chicago has made an important first move by partnering with the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center (Chicago CAC), the city’s sole non-profit supporting training and agency collaboration to prevent and address child sexual abuse in youth-serving organizations of all kinds.

“When we do education sessions, we talk a lot about behavior,” said Julia Strehlow, education, outreach and prevention director for Chicago CAC. “We often don’t use the word grooming because that makes many people think of an older male and a younger victim. Perpetrators can be anyone.”

Another area where school districts often fail is in training students about when adult behavior is inappropriate. In her research, Shakeshaft has encountered many high school students who know that one of their peers is “dating” a teacher and believe that is appropriate behavior. “Even the student who is targeted might think that’s OK. They might feel flattered or have a crush on the adult. It doesn’t matter. It’s not OK. We have to get to a point where kids say, ‘We were taught teachers aren’t allowed to do that.’”

In 2011, Illinois was the first state to pass Erin’s Law, which required public school districts across the state to offer staff and students education on sexual abuse prevention and body safety awareness every year from preK through 12th grade. However, a WTTW investigation found Chicago Public Schools has so far done little to comply with the law.

Alvaro calls lack of training for students “a major loophole” in preventing child sexual abuse. “This would be analogous to never holding active shooter drills with kids. It’s our job as adults to prevent sexual abuse. But you have to tell kids what to do if it happens. It’s just like putting seat belts on or fire drills.”

Expert Bios

Researcher Charol Shakeshaft of Virginia Commonwealth University has been studying sexual abuse of students in schools, school responses and prevention strategies since the mid-1990s. She recently published a standard of care for preK-12 districts in preventing and addressing educators’ sexual abuse of children, based on interviews with school administrators, child sexual abuse specialists and lawyers with experience in school employee sexual misconduct. We talked about the strengths and weaknesses of the new Chicago Public Schools policies and practices and how they compare with other districts and with her newly-published standard of care.

Jennifer Alvaro, is a Maryland-based social worker who specializes in child abuse prevention and support, including both support for child abuse victims and treatment for sexual offenders. As a parent advocate, she has led efforts to improve screening and training to prevent and address sexual abuse in the Montgomery County, Maryland, public schools.

Julia Strehlow is the education, outreach and prevention director for the Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center, the city’s only not-for-profit that coordinates all parties involved in investigation of child sexual abuse, as well as providing training and education for youth-serving organizations.

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Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher

Maureen Kelleher is a senior writer and editor at Education Post, but before that she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. Between 1998 and 2006 she was an associate editor at Catalyst Chicago, the go-to magazine covering Chicago’s public schools. There, her reporting won awards from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the International Reading Association and the Society for Professional Journalists. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of an elementary student at Chicago’s Namaste Charter School. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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