SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – One in ten students experience sexual misconduct by school personnel by the time they graduate from high school.
Illinois legislators hope to pass a bill into lawto make people more aware of the signs of sexual abuse. This proposal would require the Illinois State Board of Education to create a resource guide to help students, parents, teachers, and staff respond to and prevent sexual misconduct. The bill also mandates schools develop an employee code of conduct policy establishing boundaries between staff and students.
House Bill 1975 also states a person commits aggravated sexual abuse if they commit an act of sexual conduct with a student while holding a position of trust, authority, or supervision. Sponsors named the proposal Faith’s law to recognize Faith Colson, an advocate groomed and sexually assaulted by a teacher in 2001. “My high school failed to protect me because it tried to handle concerns internally and no one reported to DCFS. When bystanders passively do nothing, they help the perpetrator,” said Colson. “When enablers actively protect the institution, they help the perpetrator.” An amendment to the bill clarifies that provisions of the plan won’t apply to sexual conduct between two students. It also notes a “position of trust” related to a victim does not include sexual behavior between a married couple.
Missing signs of abuse in schools
Advocates say they’re not accusing teachers of not caring about sexual misconduct. But, Colson thinks it’s unintended ignorance. “They see the signs in the child and they’re looking for that outside abuse. But they’re sometimes missing those signs of abuse inside the institution,” Colson told lawmakers. “It’s not because they don’t care. It’s because they’re not trained to see those warning signs as dangerous.”
Lawmakers hope the plan can prevent current and future teachers from manipulating students and forcing them to have sexual relationships. Parents Against Child Sex Abuse is one of the advocacy groups pushing for the proposal. P.A.X.A. Co-founder Tania Haigh says parents are starting to learn about these issues on their own. She stressed that is critical since the epidemic is pervasive. “Pedophiles and predators go to places where they can have access to children,” Haigh said. “What better profession to put on a guise than being a teacher to have access to children in an environment where it’s pretty much the most amount of time children spend in school?”
Haigh emphasized she wasn’t making a blanket statement about educators. She said the teaching profession is revered by many. Haigh also argues the stakes should be much higher when awarding teaching licenses.
Raising the bar for professional conduct
The Chicago Children’s Advocacy Center also worked with sponsors of this proposal. Executive Director Char Rivette told the Senate Criminal Law subcommittee members that they can’t forget the bill’s intention is prevention. “I feel that the bar should be high for schools. These are institutions that are in place to educate all of our children,” Rivette said. “Yeah, we should have a really high bar for what happens between the folks that are hired to take care of our kids and the children that are in the schools.”
Rivette also noted that only a small percentage of sexual abuse cases get reported. She stressed a high percentage of children experience that abuse, but only roughly 40% of those report cases to authorities. Still, a smaller percentage of those cases lead to the arrest and prosecution of perpetrators. “It’s because it’s really hard to prove these cases. You need corroborating evidence. It’s often just the child’s word and no witnesses,”
Rivette said. “I also want to make sure that we’re backing up a little bit and remembering the context here of the situation of where abuse happens and how it gets reported so that we don’t inadvertently create something that isn’t as protective as we want it or need it to be.” This plan passed unanimously out of the House in April, but it failed to move in the Senate. Sponsors hope they can pass the bill during the veto session in October.