Americans rightly came unglued when media revealed sex abuse and cover-ups in parts of the Catholic church. Today, society faces a substantially larger abuse crisis in public schools.
Locally, five school employees and a foreign exchange guardian were arrested on charges of sex crimes against children in just the past two months. Anyone who watches or reads local news in almost any market sees a veritable parade of teachers and coaches arrested on charges of having had sex with kids.
"Students in America's schools are groped. They're raped. They're pursued, seduced and think they're in love," reads the summary paragraph that kicked off an investigative series by the Associated Press in 2007. The agency spent 2006 investigating sex abuse in public schools and found a phenomenon that statistically dwarfed the church problem. The AP told of cover-ups by teachers, administrators and teachers unions. Few Americans saw the expose because most newspapers snubbed it.
The nearly invisible AP series came on the heels of a congressionally mandated study in which Hofstra University researchers found extensive abuse throughout the country's public schools. The Coloradoan newspaper in Fort Collins recently detailed how faculty and administrators spent 10 years glossing over ongoing sex-abuse suspicions, in blatant disregard for mandatory reporting laws, involving a Fort Collins High School teacher and multiple victims. A Gazette editor interviewed a Colorado professional witness and psychologist who said school administrators and faculty pave the way for abusers to get hired at other schools, a practice known as "passing the trash." That interview came in 2010 after police arrested eight area teachers on sex abuse charges in six months.
In 2011, the statewide teachers union sued the Colorado Board of Education for requiring public disclosure of teacher arrests — an act that showed more concern for union members than students.
We can no longer view public-school sex abuse as an isolated problem that will correct itself. It is a documented, widespread, institutionalized disgrace.
A Sunday Gazette story quoted a Colorado Springs police official — a person responsible for supervising high school resource officers — describing sex crimes against students as "an infrequent occurrence."
"It's not on our daily radar," said Sgt. Lisa Cintron.
It should be. To comprehend the magnitude of five school-employee arrests in two months, consider the frequency of abuse in Catholic institutions.
The church runs 6,841 elementary and high schools that educate 2.03 million kids. In El Paso County, 214 public schools educate 111,292 students.
To match the recent abuse rate in local schools, Catholic institutions would see 90 arrests in two months — a scandal Sgt. Cintron could not dismiss as "an infrequent occurrence."
The most recent data reveal six credible allegations of sex abuse against children in all Catholic institutions for the entire year of 2012. Law enforcement confirmed seven credible allegations for all of 2011. That's all Catholic institutions, not just schools, serving the children of 78 million Catholics. The damning statistical contrast shows how institutions can protect children when society demands it.
Though our culture dismisses alarming information about public school abuse, the Catholic scandal brought about change. Bishops said never again. In 2002 they established the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection and the National Review Board to enforce a slate of protections established with a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. It's working, and the public school establishment should follow suit.
By any measure — whether we trust the AP, the Coloradoan, Hofstra or our observations — sex abuse is out of control in public schools. It is a frequent occurrence involving public employees in positions of trust and victims forced into their care by mandatory attendance. Congress, the president, governors, the media, the secretary of education, state legislators and school boards need to get serious and stop these crimes against youth.