Often, upon hearing about a sexual abuse case, people are shocked to learn that the predator was a trusted member of the community. School examples include a well-liked bus driver who admitted to sexually abusing up to 35 young girls while riding, without pay, on other drivers’ routes, or the highly regarded school resource officer who was sentenced to prison after a state police investigation of allegations that he had sex with boys in his middle school office.
Both men wreaked legal havoc for school districts after abusing their victims. In both cases, dangerous predators were not properly screened or supervised and knew how to groom uninformed and inadequately trained adults.
Building a carefully crafted persona—a caring and trusted adult—enabled them to blatantly violate policies and professional norms to abuse students for multiple school years before being caught.
School officials should carefully consider using comprehensive pre-employment screening measures, policies and training to help deter and, if the first line of defense fails, more rapidly detect sophisticated sexual predators.
Continual reevaluation of how we protect students from dangerous predators
While they are still valuable screening tools, fingerprint-based FBI and state police databases do not contain the majority of felony conviction records. Local agencies can fail to submit them.
Strengthening the application process
By using a wider array of screening and prevention approaches, school districts can sometimes dissuade the sophisticated sexual predator from completing an employment application.
Sending a clear message to predators that, even if they pass the screening process, they will likely be caught if they attempt to abuse children can prompt them to go elsewhere.
Here are examples of improved approaches that school systems are increasingly adopting to protect students:
- instituting a formal code of conduct that defines both appropriate and inappropriate interaction and contact
- including red-flag questions in employment applications
- using red-flag questions when conducting reference checks
- implementing policies on falsification, on reporting post-hire arrests, on mandatory reporting, and on requiring notification of police and/or social services before school officials initiate an investigation
- including a statement in every district job description that protects students from abuse and makes compliance with district policies, statutes and training a job requirement
- using a private service to conduct an additional national criminal history check of applicants, which includes criminal records checks for previous counties of residence and a Social Security trace to detect residency omissions
- requiring post-hire criminal history checks for all employees every 24 or 36 months
- notifying successful candidates that they must complete training on child abuse that covers mandatory reporting requirements, boundaries invasion and awareness of types of sexual
These approaches can turn away dangerous applicants while clarifying expectations for employees who would never consider abusing a child. Training also helps employees feel more comfortable if they someday observe and need to report prohibited behavior by an employee they like, respect and trust.
Of course, these options should be carefully vetted by qualified legal counsel and district human resources professionals for legality in your state.
While school officials have made tremendous strides in this area, each tragic case emphasizes the importance of continual reevaluation of how we protect students from predators.
The author of 28 books in his field, Michael Dorn serves as the executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit K-12 school safety center. Contact him at safehavensinternational.org.