Just in time for the beginning of the annual convention of the National Education Association, the U.S. Department of Education released on June 30 a report suggesting that 4.5 million students may be victims of educator sexual misconduct during their school years. The report is striking in that it implicates all categories of school personnel from administrators to bus drivers. Misconduct includes both verbal harassment and sexual molestation. What has been the reaction of the NEA, the nation’s largest teachers association? Given the breadth and scope of the problem, one might expect that the NEA would react with sober reflection upon the serious nature of these findings. Not so.
According to published accounts, Michael Pons of the NEA said, “Lumping harassment together with serious sexual misconduct does more harm than good by creating unjustified alarm and undermining confidence in public schools…Statistically, public schools remain one of the safest places for children to be.” Back in March, when a draft report of the educator sexual abuse material came to light, the reaction of the NEA was similarly defensive. In a March 10 Education Week report, NEA spokesperson Kathleen Lyons reacted to the suggestion that schools and the Catholic Church both have an abuse problem by saying that it would be “a misuse of the data to imply that public schools and the Catholic Church have experienced the same level of abuse cases. I take great umbrage at that suggestion, that just seems like someone is reaching conclusions based on half the data that’s needed.”
Is there a pattern developing here? Clearly, the nation’s largest teacher’s union is on the defensive. Perhaps the NEA’s “umbrage” is stimulated by some observations made by study author Dr. Charol Shakeshaft concerning the role of professional teacher’s groups in addressing the problem. In the report, she states on page 46 concerning the actions of professional organizations that “specific guidance and direction to teachers has not been formal nor did I find evidence that professional organizations for teachers have addressed the topic for their members.” Given that the NEA is the largest such professional association for teachers, I suspect this is code for the NEA is asleep at the switch on this issue.
Whether the NEA is truly neglectful on the issue is a matter of some debate. However, I have been struck by how the reactions of some local educators have differed from those of the NEA. After the report was released, John Schuster, spokesman for the Miami-Dade school district told the Miami Herald, ”The school district works very diligently to prevent improper interaction between staff and students, and we address that in a number of ways.” Mr. Schuster said these include conducting a criminal background check on all district employees. Mr. Schuster added that the school district does not allow school employees to be alone with a student behind closed doors. This is refreshing candor from a school system that has suffered through scandals of a sexual nature involving teachers and students. I wonder why the NEA is not as candid?
Perhaps the NEA’s official defensiveness is tied to the source of this report. The report on sexual abuse was required as a part of the No Child Left Behind law championed by President Bush. NEA partisans would have us believe that No Child Left Behind is nothing but a punitive, unfeeling program creating great hardships on schools nationwide. A perusal of the NEA.org website will demonstrate the antipathy toward the Bush initiative. Given the fact the NEA has mounted an organized public relations campaign against No Child Left Behind, is it possible that the organization’s leadership doesn’t want you to know that the legislation caused the confrontation of a serious safety problem and thereby produced something good?
Whatever the source of the NEA defensive posture, perhaps it is time for the nation’s parents to demand better answers to legitimate worries about the safety of children.