Sex abuse in schools. No one wants to think about it let alone talk about it. But we must because the statistics are staggering and because living in denial puts children at risk. It wasn’t too long ago that no one wanted to talk about what was happening to children at the hands of priests either and we all know how that turned out. But as with the Catholic church, this is a very real problem in our schools nationally. Rhode Island is no exception.
Cranston West High School is the latest school here in Rhode Island to make news for a teacher allegedly abusing a student and the story gets worse by the day. Not only has a science teacher with a history of similar incidents in the past been arrested on twelve counts of second-degree sexual assault, but it turns out that a school psychologist had ample reason to suspect the abuse, yet chose to stay silent. He too has been arrested.
The investigation revealed that the same student “had previously reported the assault to a school psychologist identified as George Blessing on or about February 1.”
Blessing allegedly failed to report these allegations of sexual assault and did not divulge this information until school administrators and detectives approached him on March 24, according to Winquist. (Projo 4/4/17)
All school employees are what the law calls “mandatory reporters.” They are bound by state statute 40-11-3 to report any suspicion of abuse or neglect. A student telling a staff member about inappropriate touching– a school psychologist, no less — more than meets the threshold required to immediately notify authorities. In fact, it is against the law not do so.
The fact that Blessing is a trained psychologist employed in a school setting, “makes his [alleged] decision not to report the allegations perplexing and simply inexcusable,” the police chief said. (Projo, 4/4/17)
But despite the strength of our laws around mandatory reporting, our age of consent laws need a lot of work. A not-so-fun fact about our state is that teachers who have sex with students age 16 or older are not even breaking the law. Our current laws allow for teachers or other school staff members to have sexual relationships with their students once they reach the legal age of consent.
Jennifer Alvaro, a clinical social worker and child safety advocate in Maryland with a specific focus on sexual abuse, had this to say about the school psychologist’s alleged failure to report the alleged abuse at Cranston West.
This is far too common. Kids are re-victimized by those who don’t make reports and leave them in danger. Kudos to police for prosecuting this. Way too many mandated reporters protect other adults instead of kids. Prosecuting them may be the only way to get them to follow the law.
One in ten American students will be a victim of sexual misconduct by a school employee between kindergarten and twelfth grade. That is 5 million children in America and more than 14,000 here in Rhode Island. And while there are important legal distinctions between misconduct and abuse that are important, there is no excuse for our General Assembly not to do what Connecticut has done and make it illegal for school employees to have sex with students who attend their school, regardless of their age. Educators and staff in our school buildings and those elected to represent us on Smith Hill share in the responsibility of making this a priority.