BY LESLIE CROCKER SNYDER NEW YORK DAILY NEWS Monday, May 5, 2014, 4:30 AM
Every week, we learn of new charges of sexual abuse and rape at schools that have allegedly mishandled or hidden complaints by victims. Last week it was Columbia University; the week before, it was Florida State.
It has been three years since the Penn State-Jerry Sandusky horror, and little has been accomplished. Almost as disturbing as the abuse itself are the revelations of institutional bungling of investigations, and sometimes, failure to investigate at all.
Sadly, sexual abuse extends far beyond the church, the military, sports and our universities. It is widespread in our secondary schools, where it is estimated that one in five children has been abused by a school educator or employee between kindergarten and 12th grade.
By now, almost everyone has heard about the decades of sexual abuse at the Horace Mann school. Less well known is the fact that the school repeatedly failed to respond to dozens of abuse complaints.
For the past few months, I have been conducting an investigation into what happened at Horace Mann at the behest of an alumni group. The goal of our investigation is to explain the culture that allowed these terrible acts to occur repeatedly over 30 years.
As part of the investigation, we commissioned a study of how 20 other independent schools throughout the country have dealt with similar revelations in the recent past.
We found a disturbing pattern: Most complaints were quashed or ignored; victims were mislead and told they needed documentary proof of the abuse; victims were told it might hurt their college admission chances if they persisted in reporting complaints; schools failed to report abuse to law enforcement; they protected the abuser, put the interests of the school ahead of the victim. Most schools admitted the abuse only when forced to by exposure by the media.
The victims in all of these cases were young, impressionable and often unable to recover from the deep and lasting trauma of being abused by people who were their heroes and role models, beloved teachers or coaches. Many believed they were the accuser’s only victim and never reported it to anyone. This sense of isolation further traumatized them.
While every state has laws mandating that public schools report abuse by parents or guardians, these laws generally do not apply to abuse by school educators or employees. And even these inadequate laws do not apply to private schools. How can we ensure justice for young victims who may never recover from the trauma inflicted? We must make certain that private schools — and all other educational institutions — institute a series of reforms.
Hiring must include criminal background checks and reference checks; a detailed description of prohibited behavior, as well as the consequences of violations. And workplaces must provide annual training sessions for teachers and staff in recognizing, reporting and preventing sexual abuse.
Every school must put into place a mandatory system of reporting complaints of abuse to an independent council of well-credentialed persons, most of whom should be unconnected to the school.
Under the Clery Act, American colleges and universities that receive federal funds are required to make all incidents of crime and sexual abuse public. Private schools should be required to do the same. Parents should know whether their children’s school is safe before they enroll, not after sexual abuse is reported in the media.
It is also critical that all credible instances of abuse be disclosed to any potential employer to keep an abuser from being hired by an unsuspecting school or youth organization. We must prevent situations analogous to the deliberate re-shuffling of abusing priests in the Catholic church, by creating a registry of abusers available to any school or organization involved with children. This re-shuffling happened with several teachers at Horace Mann and has happened at many other schools.
And we must also finally fix overly restrictive statutes of limitations, which prevent many child victims from reporting crimes against them.
More broadly, we must find new ways to change the attitude of schools from self-protection to protection of the victims of these traumatic crimes. Penn State eventually cooperated. Horace Mann refused to cooperate and refused to conduct its own investigation.
In the past, the response of too many of our institutions to the epidemic of sexual abuse has been limited, inadequate and at times pathetic. Enough lip service. It is time for action.
Snyder has worked in the criminal justice system for over 35 years, both as a prosecutor and as a judge. She founded and led the Manhattan Sex Crimes Prosecution Bureau and co-authored New York’s Rape Shield Law.