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GAO Issues Report on Sexual Abuse of Kids in K-12 Schools

Schools across the country have hired people who have sexually exploited or targeted children in the past, according to a Government Accountability Office report.

The GAO compared school employment databases from 19 states and Washington, D.C, in between 2007 and 2009 to the National Sex Offender Registry to find cases of sexual abuse that resulted in a criminal conviction.

In investigating known cases of sexual abuse by school employees, the GAO found that people with histories of sexual misconduct were hired or retained as teachers, support staff, volunteers, or contractors. In 11 of the 15 cases the GAO reviewed, the offenders previously targeted children. In six cases, the offenders used their positions in the schools to abuse more children,according to the report (.pdf).

Several factors contributed to the abusers being hired in these cases, the GAO discovered. One was that school officials allowed offenders to resign rather than pursuing criminal charges against them.

In some cases, these offenders were given positive reviews, allowing them to move to a new school and continue the abuse. In one case, a teacher was compelled to resign from a school in Connecticut after he was caught accessing pornography on a school computer. The school reported the incident but gave the teacher a positive recommendation. A second school hired him but asked him to resign a short time later and, again, gave him a positive review. He was hired by a third school where he sexually assaulted two students. School officials interviewed for the report said that firing a teacher for sexual misconduct is expensive and unwise due to the potential for litigation.

The GAO also found that many schools failed to conduct criminal background checks. In 10 of the 15 cases, schools did not perform preemployment criminal history checks on prospective employees.

For example, an Arizona school hired a teacher who had been convicted of lewd and lascivious acts with a minor. The school chose not to conduct a background check because it was in a hurry to fill the position. The teacher was later arrested and convicted for sexually abusing a student. In another case, a Florida school allowed a convicted sex offender to work as a volunteer coach. The school did not conduct a background check even though such checks were required under school policy. The volunteer was later arrested for having sexual contact with students.

Those schools that did conduct background checks often failed to do so thoroughly. Some schools conducted checks only for the state it operated in, allowing sex offenders from other states to work at the school. Another school used a nickname to conduct a search, missing a sex offender’s criminal history under his full name. None of the schools interviewed conducted recurring criminal checks to identify individuals who commit offenses while they are employed.

In some instances, schools did not follow up on troubling information that did surface on the background checks. For example, an applicant at one school checked “yes” when asked whether he had been convicted of “a dangerous crime against children.” The school failed to follow up on this information. The applicant was hired and later arrested for abusing children at the school.

The GAO reports that there are no federal laws regulating the employment of sex offenders at public or private schools. State laws have varying requirements for hiring and conducting background checks. The report includes state laws for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. GAO-11-200.pdf

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