Mitigating the Risk of Student Sexual Abuse Amidst a Pandemic
As the coronavirus began to advance across the country early in the year, almost every state and US territory ordered or recommended schools close to all in-person classes to mitigate the spread of the virus.1 Educators quickly turned to technology as the new vehicle to deliver classes, but this urgency created safety and security exposures with little time and few resources to assess and mitigate the potential risks.
While the coronavirus demanded a quick response and continues to demand attention as the new school year begins, it’s crucial to proactively review the risks distance learning created. An effective risk assessment and mitigation process for student sexual abuse and molestation through distance learning should look at both external and internal risks.
External risks include students being exposed to inappropriate materials after being sent to a specific website or social media app to view an assignment, a sexual predator accessing a virtual classroom, and the hacking of home webcams. There are also external risks not directly associated with sexualizing children such as the capture, exploitation or theft of student personal data.
Internal risks related to sexual abuse and molestation are also a significant concern. Nearly 10% of high school students surveyed said they were sexually abused on a school campus.2 So, we know there are bad actors who gain access to students through our schools. Of course, most district employees are good people with good intentions, but the truth is there are child molesters who walk among us and we don’t know who they are. And they will attempt to exploit this newly sanctioned extensive use of electronic communication with students.
So, in order to protect students from sexual abuse and limit district liability, districts must assess risk and create boundary policies with the assumption that child molesters are present. Adhering to boundary policies will also minimize false allegations against employees with purely good intentions.
Eighty percent of child sexual abuse happens in a one-on-one situation.3 Though this statistic relates to contact sexual abuse, most verbal and visual sexual abuse and desensitization also happens in one-on-one situations. Before the pandemic, child sexual abuse prevention experts would have recommended restricting electronic communication between employees and students to what is necessary to meet academic needs, avoiding social media interactions, and using only district provided technology platforms. But “what is necessary” has been drastically changed by the virus and distance learning and our boundaries should change to reflect and mitigate the increased risk.
Districts can take the following important steps to mitigate risk and limit liability. Districts should:
- Make every effort to vet, approve, and provide all necessary distance learning technology platforms that mitigate internal and external risks.
- Provide students and parents guidelines for safety during distance learning assignments and on-line interactions with employees.
- Develop, communicate, and enforce staff-student boundary policies that limit one-on-one interactions with students in-person and on-line and reflect behavior expectations. Here are some key boundaries to consider:
- Employees should utilize district approved and/or provided technology platforms to interact with students and parents whenever possible.
- One-way and two-way written communications with students should be accessible to administrators and parents including but not limited to texts, emails, chats, and direct messaging. Use group messaging if necessary.
- Verbal and visual on-line interactions with students should be done in a classroom or small group setting, not with individual students.
- Employees should not personally provide technology to students to facilitate distance learning or for any other reason.
- Employees should keep student interactions focused on meeting academic requirements. Avoid interactions that are overly personal or sexual in nature.
As districts struggle to determine when it will be safe for students and teachers to return to the classroom, it is imperative that they also provide a safe environment for students on-line. Even when in-person classes resume, hotspots may occur causing the need for an immediate return to distance learning. Preparations for safe distance learning is the new norm for the foreseeable future.
- Nicole Chavez and Artemis Moshtaghian, “48 states have ordered or recommended that schools don't reopen this academic year,” CNN, May 7, 2020, accessed August 15, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/18/us/schools-closed-coronavirus/index.html.
- Charol Shakeshaft, “Know the Warning Signs of Educator Sexual Misconduct,” Kappan Magazine (February 2013): 9-11, 13.
- Howard N. Snyder, Sexual Assault of Young Children as Reported to Law Enforcement: Victim, Incident, and Offender Characteristics, A NIBRS Statistical Report, National Center for Juvenile Justice (2000): 10, 15, NCJ-182-990.