In the wake of a flood of sexual abuse allegations in the city’s public school system this year, everyone from Queens psychologists to legislators is focusing on ways to better protect children before words like rape and groped are uttered —and lives are shattered.
“This can have serious, serious impacts,” Dr. Elissa Brown, a psychology professor at St. John’s University in Jamaica Estates, said of sexual abuse. “We know kids who have been abused may have post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and aggression. We know those problems can follow kids over time. We know kids who are sexually abused can have problems in adulthood with relationships and problems with keeping jobs.”
There were 405 sexual misconduct complaints about public school workers during the first five months of this year —a 37 percent spike over last year’s 296 complaints in the same time frame, according to the most recent statistics from Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District Richard Condon.
In Queens, for example, Wilbert Cortez, a former elementary school teacher at PS 174 in Rego Park, has been charged with molesting five young boys, according to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown. A grand jury recently cleared Brett Picou, a school aide at PS 52 in Springfield Gardens, on child sex abuse charges, though the DOE said Picou remains suspended without pay and the department is continuing to investigate the matter.
Picou had faced charges that he allegedly touched students’ buttocks through their clothing, according to prosecutors.
As alarm and outrage among the general public grows with each allegation, many of those who research sexual abuse against children are calling on educators and legislators to work on preventing the misconduct.
Brown, who has a PhD in clinical psychology and runs the Partners program at St. John’s, which provides mental health services for children who have been through traumatic events, including sexual abuse, is currently working with a partner to develop a prevention program — called Keeping Every Youth Safe — that would help to train parents and teachers to handle sexual abuse situations, as well as further open dialogue with children about the incidents.
“We want to educate people whose job it is to take care of kids — principals, teachers, school psychologists, janitors, anybody in the school system,” Brown said. “They’d receive training, and, in addition, I feel very strongly, and so do school personnel, that parents need to have a really strong role in the protection of their children.
As part of the KEYS program, which Brown said they are hoping to implement in schools citywide, mental health professionals would work with parents to “enact behaviors that can keep children safe.
“If you have a child who’s getting private tutoring, are you dropping in unannounced to make sure everything’s OK?” Brown said. “If you have a child working with a teacher, is that door open? Is there a visible window? It’s very important for us to decrease the situations that would feel comfortable for potential perpetrators to groom kids towards sexual abuse —and they do groom them.”
Like Brown, Khushmand Rajendran, who recently completed her PhD in social welfare with a dissertation on “factors that promote resilience among kids who have been abused or neglected,” has found in her research that parents play a crucial role in ensuring a child’s well-being, particularly after allegations of sexual abuse have surfaced.
“When there’s the suspicion of abuse or neglect, especially in a school setting, it’s really, really important the parents take the child seriously,” Rajendran said. “There might be a sense of shame or guilt that the child has —thinking maybe they did something to invite it — and if they get the impression from adults of, ‘Oh, what did you do?” that would be really detrimental.”
Terri Miller, president of the national Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, emphasized the need for a support system of caring adults for a child who has reported being sexually abused.
“Students are told to mind their teacher, respect their teacher, and when the teacher crosses the boundary of pedagogy and goes into the element of abuse, the student doesn’t know what to do with that,” Miller said.
Legislators too have been working on ways to decrease sexual abuse in the schools, and Mayor Bloomberg and Schools Chancellor Dennis Walcott are calling for the state to pass legislation that would give the city the final say on whether a not a teacher accused of sexual misconduct will be fired. Currently, arbitrators chosen by the city and the teachers’ union make rulings on misconduct cases.
“If a school employee is found to have engaged in sexual behavior or made sexual comments towards students, the chancellor should have the final say on what action to take, and the legislation we are proposing would provide that authority,” Bloomberg said in a prepared statement. “Every child deserves a safe learning environment, and every parent has the right to know that his or her child is safe while at school.”
City officials argue that they have been prevented from terminating teachers in cases where Condon, the city’s special commissioner of investigation, found instances of inappropriate sexual conduct. For example, the SCI recently found a teacher had inappropriately touched a number of female students’ buttocks, breasts, waists, stomachs and necks, but the hearing officer determined that the perpetrator had hugged one student and tickled another. The officer then imposed a 45-day suspension and permitted the teacher to return to the classroom. The DOE said it is now preparing to file new charges based on other allegations.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew recently called on the City Council to “conduct an oversight hearing on the Department of Education’s screening and hiring practices” in light of the spate of sexual misconduct allegations.
The UFT “believes in zero tolerance on this issue, which is why our contract already allows the immediate removal of accused teachers from the classroom and their removal from payroll if there is a finding of probable cause, and mandates their termination if they are found guilty of sexual misconduct,” Mulgrew wrote in a June 15 letter to Councilman Robert Jackson (D-Manhattan).
Mulgrew went on to say that the recent cases have “raised serious questions about the Department of Education’s screening and hiring practices.”
Walcott slammed Mulgrew’s statement in a letter to the UFT president, calling the request to review the DOE’s hiring process a “disingenuous shell game to fool the public from the real problem —your protection of teachers who engage in inappropriate sexual behavior with students.”
The chancellor rattled off a litany of examples in which teachers faced serious exual accusations, but received little more than a metaphorical slap on the hand from the arbitrator.
“Rather than calling on others to take action, make the decision that is right for our schools and our students,” Walcott wrote. “A teachers’ union should never protect those in its ranks who would dare to harm our children.”
Miller said SESAME has thrown its support behind Bloomberg’s legislation, saying “New York’s laws don’t go far enough in protecting students against offending teachers.”