Recent months have brought a spate of stories about sexual misconduct by both police officers and teachers. Are authority figures crossing the line more frequently, or are we just starting to notice?
Yesterday, we heard about the Chicago police officers accused of assaulting a woman after offering her a ride home — coming just a month after the acquittal of another Chicago cop on rape charges. Chicago's mayor seemed to indicate that these kinds of allegations were business as usual. And now the Times reports that an NYPD officer is accused of raping a drunk woman in her apartment after responding to her 911 call (his lawyer says they had "physical contact" but no intercourse).
From the classroom, we've had the story of the New Zealand teacher who had an affair with a student, coverage of which included a list of previous student-teacher liaisons like this one: "A married male teacher was deregistered after he 'counselled' a pupil who had been in an incestuous relationship by having sex with her in his car and on a classroom floor during school time." There was the rash of teacher inappropriateness in January, with a firefighting instructor talking about cockrings and telling students to treat a firehose "like a girl." And the Dutch teacher who admitted to molesting dozens of kids. And just this week, the BBC reported on the self-described "Salford stallion," a gym teacher who had sex with three teenage students, one of whom initially sought his advice on "a family problem."
It's hard to find nationwide data on police sexual misconduct. But in 2007, USA Today reported that cases of police violating people's civil rights were up 25% since 9/11. The paper cited "reduced standards" for police recruitment as departments lost members to post-9/11 military service. In the case of teachers, the picture is also somewhat murky. Also in 2007, another slew of high-profile student-teacher sex cases led ABC to examine whether such cases were becoming more common. Though they found a significant increase in such cases in New York State, they came up against a lack of national data. And in 2009, the Guardian reported that the number of complaints of teacher misconduct made to the General Teaching Council for England was increasing, but that a group of MPs was investigating what percentage of these complaints turned out to be false. MP Douglas Carswell opined that the increase might be due to reporting and not to a rise in misconduct: "I imagine that young people now are more willing to complain than in the past."
This may be part of the story. Another part, according to ABC, could be a reaction to sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. David Finkelhor of the Crimes against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire told the network, "What accounts for what we're seeing is a side effect of the clergy abuse scandal starting in 2001, when the whole idea that large institutions could be financially [liable] if they swept this kind of thing under the rug." Now that the practice of moving offending priests around rather than prosecuting them has been brought to light and roundly decried, it may be harder for both schools and police departments to protect sex offenders. And the 24-hour news cycle may have made it more difficult for them to keep offenses quiet — on the issue of teacher misconduct, the sheriff of Oakland County, Michigan told the Macomb Daily in 2009, "There are more media outlets out there — the Internet and 24-hour cable news networks. It's just an impression that there is more. I think it's been going on for a long time, but it doesn't happen a lot and when it does, it's big news."
The good news about all this is that more attention to the issue of sexual abuse by people in power may make victims feel more comfortable coming forward. The bad news is that it won't necessarily heal them. A passage from the BBC article on the "Salford stallion" (real name: Christopher Drake) is especially upsetting:
In victim impact statements, the 16-year-old said Drake made her feel "cheated, dirty, worthless and an idiot".
The second girl said she now had difficulty in trusting people.
The third girl [...] said she felt she had been "naive and stupid" and he had taken advantage of her trust.
One reason teacher and police abuse cases make news is that we're especially horrified when people who are supposed to help and protect people instead exploit them. Unfortunately, our horror doesn't necessarily make these crimes less common. And in addition to reporting on them after the fact, we need to get better at ensuring they don't happen in the first place.
Image via Bernhard Lelle and Aperture51/Shutterstock.com