Early Warning Signs

The Early Warning Signs of Sexual Harassment and Abuse In School

By Mary Jo McGrath, Attorney at Law
Founder/President, McGrath Systems, Inc.
Reprinted from McGrath Educator’s Newsletter

Sexual harassment and abuse in school are serious situations. What an understatement considering the emotional devastation caused by these situations and the multi-million dollar payouts coast to coast: $4.0 million in a Davenport, WA, school district and $2.3 million dollars in a Galway, NY, school district. Too often our administrators say, “But how was I to know?”. They are untrained in the early warning signs of sexual harassment and abuse in school. If they were trained in early detection, they could better protect both the potential victims of such conduct and the district’s financial resources.

Spotting the Bread Crumb Trail
Early detection of both sexual harassment and abuse in school is possible if we know what to look for and how to respond to what we’re seeing. Spotting what I call the breadcrumb trail can help you in preventing an escalation of a minor problem into a costly lawsuit. Our own prejudices and stereotypes obscure our ability to see what’s in front of us to be seen. Timely intervention starts with accurate perception.

People who engage in sexual harassment and abuse in school don’t necessarily look the part. Most of us have a mental image that people who hurt other people look odd and act differently that ordinary folk. To the contrary, frequently the perpetrator is someone we think of as a winner. Though always dangerous to generalize it is important to challenge our beliefs with some disconcerting facts.

Fooled by the “Profile” of a Winner
The “profile” of male educators who hurt children is anything but what we would think. An adult perpetrator is often middle aged, married with children, a churchgoer, and someone who is highly respected in the community for the inordinate amount of time spent contributing to children. Female molesters defy profiling. Ironically, it is not uncommon for the adult to be named Teacher of the Year. The highest percentage of violators are coaches, drama, music, and special education teachers and others who have opportunities to isolate certain students in the course of activities. This is not to say that harassment of abuse occurs exclusively in this grouping. It is, however, inordinately represented among the ranks of these adults.

In student-to-student situations the perpetrator may be captain of the football team or otherwise a student who would think has it all going for him or her. It is vitally important to not be blinded by our own ideas of who would “need” to harass or abuse another.

Brutality not Sensuality
Too often I hear people say things like, “He can get lots of dates, he doesn’t need to harass someone,” or “She’s married to a great guy. She wouldn’t do that!” These attitudes are functional blinders. They keep us from even looking beyond our beliefs to explore the facts. These statements also show a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of acts of harassment or abuse.

Essentially harassment and abuse in school are acts of violence and domination, not sensuality and flirtation. These acts are calculated to dominate and control, not enhance the enjoyment and safety of the targeted person. The violator may be very high functioning in all other areas of his or her life, but is driven within this realm of act out needs inappropriately. Don’t be fooled by appearances.

Trolling for a Target
One of the things that shield harassers and abusers is their preliminary tactics. People who behave this way don’t necessarily treat everyone the same. The person may have perfectly acceptable relationships with most people but have an abusive relationship only with the current object of his or her aggression.

The perpetrator will troll for a victim by engaging in minor boundary violations to judge the reaction of the targeted person. Boundaries are a healthy part of a human being’s early warning system. When someone or something sets off the warning system it sends the message to the brain, “Alert!Ê Possible danger on the horizon.” These boundaries are a very primal part of human functioning and allow us to navigate in the world with a sense of security and safety, knowing we will warn ourselves if danger is near.

Boundary Violations are the Clue
We have boundaries in many areas, including physical, emotional, and social. If we have healthy boundaries, when they are breached we experience a sense of discomfort and of being ill at ease. Some say, “The hair stood up on the back of my neck.” A good example of where physical and social boundaries are challenged is in an elevator. Step onto an elevator with two or three people you don’t know and notice what you do. Most often people will go to their respective corners and glue their eyes to the floor indicator. They are trying to compensate for the uncomfortableness created by a situation that brushes up against and sets off the early warning boundary alarms.

A perpetrator will troll through the environment looking for someone whose boundaries are not intact and who will tolerate a violation without signaling back, “Don’t mess with me.” The communication to back off can be sent non-verbally as well as verbally, by a glance that sends a “What are you doing?” message or a body movement that says “you’re not welcome here and I’ll do something about it if you persist.” An abuser will troll through the environment looking for the underreactor whose boundary warnings are not firing or who fails to send the warning message, “Back off!”

Think Subtle not Grand
These interactions are almost imperceptible unless you know what you’re looking for: The teacher who frequently leans too close, the custodian who often chats too long and too personally, the student who is too persistent in asking for a date. These are examples of boundary violations that if not cut off at their inception might escalate. Note that the activity usually is a pattern of behavior from the offending party. No one should be overly concerned about an inadvertent single action getting them into trouble.

As the people in the school system who are responsible for checking into complaints, we need to think “subtle,” not obvious, in asking questions that lead us to the facts. When a student or employee comes in and says, “He looks at me weird,” be aware of asking questions that check out the boundary violation arena. Our inclination is to try and find out if the complainant was touched or if the offending party said something offensive. When we don’t find those more blatant actions we often think there’s nothing there. Nothing could be further from the truth. The person who is in your office complaining is probably a person with healthy boundaries who did cut the person off. Their information may very well be the beginning of the breadcrumb trail you need to follow to discover someone else who has been gravely hurt.

Grooming is Part of the Plan
Another tactic used by victimizers is to entice the target into a situation. Initially the interaction may start with compliments and attention that feels friendly and warm. Often there is a sense of surprise and pleasure at being noticed. A perpetrator will engage with the target, lulling them in closer and closer through the use of behaviors that are in the arena of special attention, assistance or counseling.

In adult to student abuse often the perpetrator will be successful in bonding with the child deeply. Once a love relationship is present the offender moves past the special attention and makes sexual demands of the student as part of maintaining their “special” relationship. This dynamic can make it difficult in a subsequent discipline case because often the victim will refuse to testify against the abuser. It is only later in life that the damage caused by the abuse of position and power may become apparent to the victim.

This delayed response in the victim is why it is so essential that an investigation be conducted by someone trained in the subtleties of harassment and abuse in school. A witness saying that nothing happened may not be the truth. Regardless of the victim’s recalcitrance, we have a responsibility to investigate and discipline the offender if deserved.

Get Educated and Be Alert
Again as the responsible adults in the school system we need to be aware of people who are going too far in their affiliation with students, especially in situations where they might be alone, or being too involved in the child’s life or family are major warning signs. You’re in charge and held accountable for student safety. Know the signs.

These dynamics are universal and apply to both the victimization of employees and students. If we learn the subtle signs of abuse in school or harassment we can intervene sooner rather than later. In Galway, New York ($2.3 million) and Davenport, Washington ($4.0 million) it was alleged that the responsible adults in the school environment had missed the early warning signs. Don’t let the next million be on your head. Learn what to do and how to do it.

Editors’ note: This article is general in nature and is not intended to replace professional, legal advice.

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