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Dirty Secrets: Research on abuse limited, but indicates a pervasive problem

Monday, November 01, 1999

By Jane Elizabeth Zemel, Post-Gazette Education Writer

Few studies or hard data on abusive teachers exist. And the academic research that has been done yields somewhat different results.

But all indicate the problem is more pervasive than many people imagine.

Fifteen percent of all students will be abused by a teacher before they graduate, according to studies conducted by Dr. Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., and a leading national authority on sexual abuse and harassment.

According to a study conducted by the Lou Harris polling firm for the American Association of University Women, 81 percent of students reported that they've been sexually harassed. Eighteen percent said the harassment came from an adult who worked in their school.

Dr. Sherry B. Bithell, whose book, "Educator Sexual Abuse" was based on her doctoral research at the University of Idaho, estimates that one in 20 teachers has engaged in sexual misconduct with students -- ranging from obscene comments to sexual abuse.

Education Week, a magazine aimed at school administrators, found 244 active investigations of teacher misconduct nationwide in one six-month span last year. The magazine published the findings in a report called "A Trust Betrayed: Sexual Abuse by Teachers." The series can be found on the Internet at

And Dr. Dan Wishnictsky, a professor at Winston-Salem (N.C.) State University, says his studies show that more than 17 percent of males and 82 percent of female students in North Carolina reported sexual harassment by school employees. His study also says that one in eight North Carolina girls say they've had sexual intercourse with a teacher.

That statistic has caused some controversy, especially among educators. And that points to one reason so few abuse studies are conducted: Researchers are hesitant to scrutinize such a volatile topic that could alienate them from their academic peers.

"This is a tough field," said Dr. Michael Bersin, an education professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "You take your shots" from other educators, he said.

Education Week's deputy managing editor, Stephen Drummond, said his research on "A Trust Betrayed" was "the most controversial thing I've worked on." When an abridged version of the series was reprinted in "Teacher" magazine, angry teachers sent letters to Drummond and his co-writer Caroline Hendrie. One writer called it "sensationalism" and "a disgrace."

When Wishnictsky completed his study, even he questioned the high number of sexual misconduct reports. But he stands by his research, which he conducted by sending questionnaires to recent high school graduates in North Carolina and collecting official records from the state department of education.

"Even if students were overreporting by two times," Wishnictsky said, "there's a high percentage of sexual harassment that goes unreported."

Bersin agreed. "It's an underreported crime," he said. "Any statistics we have can be questioned."

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