Despite News Reports, Experts Say Female Teachers Not Likely to Sexually Abuse Students
The headlines are sexy and the stories salacious. But is the spate of recent media reports about female teachers having sex with their students an honest reflection of the truth or just so much media hype?
In the most recent case to make headlines, Lina Sinha, 40, headmistress of a Montessori school in New York City, was convicted last week of sodomizing a former student when he was 13. She was also found guilty of trying to bribe another boy in an effort to get him to lie about their relationship, and now faces up to 18 years in prison.
About 10 percent of all children — boys and girls, in kindergarten through 11th grade — have reported receiving some sort of sexual harassment by an adult while in school. About 7 percent of those cases involved physical abuse, said Charol Shakeshaft, an education professor at Hofstra University and author of a congressionally mandated study on teacher misconduct for the Department of Education.
Experts say that while reports of teacher sexual misconduct are rising, it is difficult to know if there has been an increase in the number of actual occurrences of sexual abuse by teachers, because no previous studies were ever conducted to give scientists a baseline for comparison.
What is certain, however, is that the vast majority of teachers who harass or abuse their students are men. Men make up just 15 percent of all teachers, yet are responsible for two-thirds of all abuse.
Moreover, despite the public’s fascination with female abusers and our perception that the media is flooded with stories of their seductions, the abusive teachers highlighted in the media are also overwhelmingly male.
“In 2006, 158 different cases were reported nationwide in newspapers,” Shakeshaft told ABC News. “Of those, 21 percent were about females and 78 percent about males.
“The [number of press] stories are similar to the number of actual incidences. … [Stories about] females are slightly overreported in the proportion that they exist,” she said. “Females aren’t actually being reported on more in the media … just one out of five stories is about females.”
Part of the reason the public believes there is an increase in female perpetrators is because until recently, most stories about teachers (male or female) who abused students were kept under wraps. Experts also say it is a relatively recent phenomenon that women who have sex with their pupils are handled with the same gravity as their male colleagues.
“Yes, there are a lot of stories about female abusers, but we notice them particularly because in the past, there weren’t any stories,” Shakeshaft said. “We shouldn’t assume the majority of cases are about females, but we feel that way because we’re not used to them.”
While it is clear that reported incidences are on the rise, due to a lack of data, it is unclear if that means actual occurrences are rising, too.
The New York State Department of Education released a report in February that found the number of teachers facing “moral character” inquiries for having sex with students had nearly doubled over the past five years.
Since 2001, the department has investigated 485 cases, more than a quarter of which took place in the 2005-2006 school year alone.
“There is no really good data tracking teacher abuse cases,” said David Finkelhor of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.
With the exception of Internet seductions, “overall sexual abuse and sex crimes against children have declined about 50 percent since 1993,” Finkelhor said. “I’m inclined to think [incidences of teacher abuse] haven’t increased because the overall trend is down.”
Experts are divided over what exactly has caused the increase in reports. Those who spoke to ABC News offered a variety of theories to explain the increased attention, which ranged from fallout over Catholic priest sex-abuse scandals to greater emphasis on educating abused students to come forward to increased media attention.
“What accounts for what we’re seeing is a side effect of the clergy abuse scandal starting in 2001, when the whole idea that large institutions could be financially libel if they swept this kind of thing under the rug,” Finkelhor said.
“There was a realization that schools needed to educate students better, take this problem more seriously, and bring cases to the authorities,” he said.
The first recent case to capture the headlines and imaginations of the country involved Washington state teacher Mary Kay Letourneau. In 1997, Letourneau, who was then 33, was convicted of statutory rape after having an affair with her 13-year-old student Vili Fualaau. After serving two prison terms and having Fualaau’s baby, the couple was married in 2005.
Nan Stein, a senior researcher at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, said she has developed a profile of a typical male teacher who preys on his students. Men, she said, typically teach subjects such as “drama, music and photography,” classes that require “one-on-one time, where a surrogate mentor relationship” can develop.
No such profile exists for women, but Stein said female offenders seem to be young, in their 20s or early 30s and are often from rural areas.
Experts said that many of the same traits that lead men to become child molesters also lead women to abuse children. These factors can include sexual abuse, traumatic relationships and nonsexual problems in their personal lives, such as bereavement or debt.
“Female teachers are in a position of trust. When they have that emotional baggage, they act out just as male teachers have,” said clinical psychologist Jeff Gardere. “Male victims are now reporting these cases more than they have in the past.”
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Stuart