Public Schools Avoid Large-Scale Sex Abuse Scandals – So Far

locker-in-school-hallway-jpgSex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, and private school have made headlines in recent years, but there has been no big, overall scandal involving public schools. Why? Is it because there are no pedophiles in public schools? Hardly.

News stories this week suggest part of the answer – sometimes pedophiles in public schools don’t get caught. USA Today spent over a year investigating how school systems around the country keep and share disciplinary records of public school teachers and the results are shocking. States have different systems of laws and regulations, they follow the rules inconsistently, and the only system for sharing information is flawed because it depends on voluntary information sharing through a privately-run database.

Overall, USA Today’s investigation concluded that the nation-wide data sharing system “fails to keep teachers with histories of serious misconduct out of classrooms and away from schoolchildren.”

Education agencies in every state voluntarily report disciplinary actions against teachers to a privately run database operated by the non-profit National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. These disciplinary action can be anything from minor infractions to serious cases of physical or sexual abuse.

In its investigation, USA Today learned that over 9,000 disciplined teachers were missing from the database. Of these, over 1,400 were teachers whose licenses had been permanently revoked for serious misconduct. Because those teachers were not in the database, they could possibly move to another state and continue their misconduct at jobs in other schools.

According to USA Today, “NASDTEC executive director Phillip Rogers said Monday that education agencies in every state will be required by his organization to audit all of their submissions to the data since they joined the system to ensure their submissions are accurate and complete.”

These stories raise another point about why we don’t hear so much about sex abuse in public schools – it’s hard to sue public schools. Many states, including Oregon, have reformed their statutes of limitations for civil lawsuits against organizations that allowed child abuse, recognizing that victims of child sexual abuse normally take many years before they come forward and to bring a claim.

But these extended statutes of limitations often do not apply to government agencies like public schools. Or there are limitations to how they apply. In Oregon, for example, to sue a public school for sex abuse, a minor victim of abuse in a school must give a Tort Claim Notice within 270 days of when the abuse occurred, and file a lawsuit within two years of turning 18. There may be some exceptions, but they are difficult and won’t work most of the time.

Abuse in the Catholic Church only became a “scandal” when thousands of lawsuits against the church became public knowledge. As long as current statutes of limitations protect public schools from being sued, we will never see enough victims come forward to give an accurate picture of abuse inside public schools. We need transparency. And victims of sex abuse by public school teachers need the same access to justice as other victims.

Dumas and Vaughn Attorneys at Law has law offices in Portland, Oregon and serves clients in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and other states.

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