Scaring Off the Child Predators
By KIMBERLEE D. NORRIS/School Administrator, October 2018

WHILE EVERYONE who works with children has a role in preventing and reporting child sexual abuse, leaders in preK-12 education bear an even greater responsibility. Sexual predators seek access to children in places where protective barriers are low and where supervising adults are unaware of the offender’s common “grooming” behaviors.

As an attorney in a practice that regularly addresses child sexual abuse issues, I have three recommendations for those in school leadership.

» Include facts and risk indicators related to child sexual abuse in the school district‘s faculty/staff handbook.
While many handbooks address discipline, fire safety, school security and first aid protocols, facts about child sexual abuse and sexual abusers also should be shared with school faculty and staff members.

The handbooks ought to include these facts: (1) one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by age 18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those statistics hold true for men and women of all income levels, races, religions or socioeconomic levels. (2) One of three cases of reported child sexual abuse are peer-to-peer issues, minors who are abusing others, typically younger, children, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Peer sexual abuse also occurs between same-age peers. (3) False allegations of child sexual abuse are rare. Multiple studies indicate between 92 and 98 percent of abuse claims are real.

» Re-assess your criminal background check system.
A criminal background check alone is no “silver bullet.” The most comprehensive study, published in 1990 and based on a national survey of adults, showed 60 million abuse survivors in the U.S., yet two of three child victims do not report sexual abuse until adulthood, if ever, according to a 2005 article in Psychology, Public Policy and Law. As a result, fewer than 10 percent of sexual abusers will face the criminal justice system.

When it comes to criminal background checks, two common misconceptions exist. First, people who engage in criminal behavior have records. In reality, more than 90 percent of abusers have no criminal record. Second, all criminal records are stored in one large database that is accessible through criminal background check vendors. To the contrary, these databases are incomplete. In addition, sexual abuse is typically prosecuted on the county level, but a 2006 report by the U.S. Department of Justice says many counties do not have a uniform system of record keeping and do not upload these records to the national database.

When purchasing a criminal background check, school administrators should know what they are buying, understand the terms used and the value of the information provided. A criminal background check alone is an inadequate screening process.

» Create a multi-level safety system.
Beyond background checks, other layers of protection for students should include:

» Sexual abuse awareness training for all staff members and volunteers. When staff understand the basic characteristics of an abuser, including the “grooming” process of the offender, they are better equipped to recognize and prevent abuse.

» Skillful screening of staff and volunteers. Applicants with inappropriate sexual motives carry various indicators and life patterns that help to identify them as inappropriate to work with children.

» Appropriate criminal background checks. While not a standalone safety measure, an appropriate background check, complete with periodic renewal or updating, is necessary.

» Tailored policies and procedures. Inherent risks, including transportation policies, discipline practices, appropriate physical and verbal boundaries, program ratios/adequate supervision, bathroom policies and functions with overnight stays, should be addressed in policies. The policies must be lean and readable, they can’t look like War and Peace or read like a legal document.

» Monitoring and oversight. Checks and balances include monitoring for adequate supervision of activities, unscheduled drop-ins on programming and performance reviews that measure safety compliance.

Sexual predators will gravitate to activities and organizations where fewer protective measures are in place. When a school is unapologetic about protecting children from abuse, predators look elsewhere because “it’s just too hard here.”

KIMBERLEE NORRIS is an attorney with Love & Norris and Abuse Prevention Systems in Fort Worth, Texas. Twitter: @MinistrySafe. Gregory Love, a law firm partner, contributed to this column.