Sunday, December 25, 2016

School sexual abuse - Who guards the guardians?

Removing external threats does not remove internal threats
by Mateja Mihinjac

In The Republic, Plato asserted it is absurd “a guardian should need a guardian”. Five Centuries later the Roman poet Juvenal rejected this and claimed guardians do not always behave ethically and should not be trusted. Incidents of child sexual abuse by school personnel, estimated in some studies between 3.7% to 4.1% (almost 1 in 20), suggest that Juvenal may be right.

While increased focus has been placed on external threats such as school shootings, children remain largely defenseless from internal threats of sexual abuse by staff.

I was recently tasked with investigating whether child-safe schools can be designed to prevent child abuse by school staff. This led me to dig deep into the literature, while remaining skeptical the solution to this social problem was physical modification.

Too often internal threats are hidden and remain a secret
The first step required understanding the contextual factors leading to abuse. Some of the findings revealed:

  • Incidents occur in settings that provide isolation, such as during one-on-one interactions often in boarding houses, camps, cars, during after-school and extracurricular activities, or at the perpetrator’s home
  • Abuse is characterised by gradual desensitisation where “grooming” behaviours commence with increased attention until escalating to obscene gestures and inappropriate behaviours.

Exacerbating the problem is inadequate legislation, unsatisfactory institutional policies and procedures, inadequate awareness, institutional blindness, and inability to centre strategies on child welfare. All that leaves children vulnerable to abuse by those who should be protecting them.


The second step was research into preventive strategies, revealing the problem needs a holistic multi-level approach. These include:

  • Child safety policies and training for everyone (including children, parents, and teachers) that clarify acceptable behaviours
  • An institutional culture with zero tolerance policy for all forms of child abuse
  • Management practices that minimise opportunities for inappropriate encounters
  • Community strategies (media campaigns, bystander interventions)
  • Institutional transparency.

Schools must offer safe environments for study and play

Design Out Crime strategies proved ineffective for addressing the intricate problem of institutional child sexual abuse. Instead, responses should embed child safety at individual, organizational and systemic levels while also giving children a voice in the matters affecting them.

As Juvenal might suggest, trusting guardians is not simple and responsibility for preventing child abuse falls to wider society at all levels including neighborhoods, parents, and schools.