Sexual Abuse Cover-ups: are educators the new Clergy Members?

The years-long sexual predation by Brooklyn Tech teacher Sean Shaynak is a call to action.  The story broke in August when the aeronautics teacher at this uber-elite public school Snapchatted a picture of his genitals to a student who screenshot it and showed it to an adult.  The adult reported it.  Shaynak, 44, was arrested for disseminating indecent material to a minor, and his electronics were seized and searched, revealing a trove of horror – over ten thousand text messages exchanged with students, a video of himself having sex with one, and evidence of sexually inappropriate conduct with seven students altogether. He’s now indicted on 36 charges. Interviews with the victims revealed further derangement– he raped an 18 year old, took at student out of state to a sex club where he had sex with other patrons, tricked another into going to a nude beach with him, plied them with alcohol and cigarettes, pressured a student to have sex with another female student, forcibly took a student on an outer-borough speeding death ride and  physical raged by beating his fists into his car when she managed to escape and was hiding nearby.

Like many of the sexual predators who prey on children, this guy was a patient professional who recognized the role that trust plays in the seduction. He cultivated his victims over a period of years.  This is not the math teacher who woke up one day and propositioned a student for sex.  Rather, he was playing the long-game, grooming his targets in their sophomore and junior years, raising the stakes gradually, and strategically waiting until they were eighteen before having sex with them.

Technology both enabled and defeated Shaynak. The Internet and mobile devices are the best things that ever happened to predators like Shaynak. They provide a pedophile portal. Back in the day, parents knew who was calling.  The phone would ring –  a literal alarm alerting the household that an outsider was trying to communicate with one of us.  Parents restricted phone use, partly because the whole house needed to share the line, but also withholding phone access was a mechanism for punishment. People didn’t call late because it woke up the family.

Now, though, the Internet and mobile devices have created unlimited access to victims. 24/7.  Over three fourths of Americans age 12-17 have mobile devices, most with Internet capabilities.  Unfortunately many parents give their children free reign over their cellphones and online behaviors. Shaynak was able to capitalize on all of this.  Shaynak exchanged 10,000 texts with one student alone.  This many points of contact would never have gone undetected back in the days of writing notes and calling.  Many people, including teenagers, behave more boldly online than in real time or in-person, motivating them to engage in riskier behavior.  So when Shaynak upped the ante with sexual behaviors in the digital mediums of texts and emails, it was easier to manipulate the victims into reciprocation, or at least, tolerance.

Although his enabler, technology was also the noose that hanged him.  If not for that penis Snapchat which led to the tremendous quantity of evidence on his devices, would he have been caught?  Technology’s key role in both effectuating the relationships and the downfall is not limited to Shaynak. A teacher at James Madison was sleeping with a sixteen year old and only was caught when the victim’s phone was hacked by a jealous ex revealing 3500 text messages exchanged between the two.

For years the victims of Shaynak’s most outrageous conduct did not come forward  And it’s no surprise why.  Our system is vicious toward victims.  Victims are frequently mistreated:  wrongly pinned as the seducers or accused of falsely accusing the teacher.  They’re sometimes said to be consensual partners in the affair or even beneficiaries.  For instance, Shaynak apparently gave one student an undeserved A on her schoolwork.  Already there’s malicious speculation online about this student plying him with sexual favors to earn high marks.  There is a tremendous power dynamic at play in underage teacher-student relationships that precludes them from being consensual.  Plus, it’s the teacher’s responsibility to be moral and ethical.  He’s the one responsible for dispensing proper grades – not the students.  He’s the authority figure who must exercise restraint.  Many students aren’t believed when they do come forward and/or become outcasts or slut-shamed afterward.  The predators are frequently the most beloved teachers and coaches, community pillars in some cases.  Consider the Ohio case in which a girl complained of a sexual assault and was herself expelled.  It wasn’t until years later when another student complained about the same teacher that the conduct was investigated – and even that second student was ostracized by her classmates and community and ultimately driven out of town.  Remember, the most gifted predators are well-liked because they’ve removed the teacher-student barriers.  By design, they are the fun ones.

It’s naïve to think that this problem is limited to guys like Shaynak.  He got caught.  A lot don’t.  There’s an entrenched ostrich-head-in-sand problem enabling teacher-student sexual predation.  The response on Twitter from some Brooklyn Tech students suggests Shaynak’s conduct was hardly a surprise.  “everyone knew this was coming” tweeted one.  Another tweeted “Shaynak finally got caught lol.”   Guaranteed that if students knew, teachers knew.  Yet nobody reported it.  This culture of willful oblivion enabling ongoing abuse has got to be happening in other schools around the nation. But we would never know because it’s swept under the cultural rug.  When was the last time there was a comprehensive study into sexual abuse of students?  Whose role is it to recognize and fight the abuse? Department of Ed? Department of Health?  Department of Justice?  Nobody – not lawmakers, law enforcers, courts, schools – is doing enough to keep predator teachers out of schools.

I have no doubt that a well-funded investigation into sexual abuse by teachers would reveal that we’re not dealing with a couple of deviants, but with a systemic problem. The AP conducted an investigation in 2007 looking at the disciplinary records for teachers in each state covering a five year period.  They found over 2500 cases and concluded that the conduct is underreported, inadequately investigated, and poorly penalized.  A prior study funded by Congress showed that 9% of public school students experienced sexual misconduct by school employees between kindergarten and the time they graduated.  The AP’s research showed a disturbing frequency of schools failing to report the clearly illegal conduct to the authorities.  Instead, many schools took the tact of quietly handling the situation in-house with under-the-table deals with the teacher, victim and union.  Schools, invested in their reputation, have a disincentive to report sexual misconduct.

Four years before he was hired at Brooklyn Tech, Shaynak brutally attacked an 11 year-old neighbor, threw the child to the ground, repeatedly punched him in the face, choked him.  The mom obtained a 6-month order of protection.  And yet, preposterously, Brooklyn Tech still found Shaynak suitable to be near kids.  It’s revelations like this, though, that are uncovered during criminal investigations when schools, administrators and school boards are also the targets of scrutiny.   These investigations can reveal institutional liability when there’s a culture of turning a blind eye, ignoring prior complaints, or negligent hiring.  So there’s a reason beyond just saving its reputation for administrators and school boards to shy away from reporting the conduct:  fear of lawsuit.

The quiet firings perpetuate the abuse. The teacher may be fired from one school only to be hired by the next, privileging him with a wondrous new population of prey.  The original school may think the problem was resolved simply by exorcising the sexual deviant from its grounds.  Many are so avoidant of lawsuit or fanfare that they’ll even strike bargains not to disparage the teacher when new schools call for a reference check. This is the problem – many administrators look no further than the well-being of their own school. This attitude does a disservice to students elsewhere, exposing them to known abusers.  There’s a constant hiring demand.  Consequently, offenders become nomadic molesters, moving from school-to-school; teaching license untarnished and background checks clean.  While some states have reporting requirements, there’s no enforcement of that, and no uniformity state-to-state.  Plus, there’s an overall lack of information sharing between schools and between states.

Sexual abuse by teachers draws inevitable comparisons to the long shushed tolerance of it found among the clergy.  Lawmakers don’t want to study the problem because they fear the size of it.  No elected official wants to take the platform as the guy who is suspicious of teachers.  Teaching is a vital profession that’s stressful, under-rewarded, underpaid, and under-acknowledged, mostly comprised of  wonderful dedicated hardworkers.  Between that and fierce unions, state and federal lawmakers are reticent to advocate for studies, tougher punishments, or federal policies.  Until mandated reporting is required, lawyers must take matters into their own hands, encouraging victims to press charges and seek civil remedies that hold all culpable parties liable under tort and civil rights laws.

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