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Education news and notes from Tampa Bay and Florida

A weekend interview with ...



Mcgrath_2 ... Mary Jo McGrath, a California lawyer whose company trains schools and businesses on matters including sexual harassment and misconduct. She is considered one of the nation's leading experts on teacher sexual misconduct. McGrath spoke with reporter Jeff Solochek after three recent Tampa Bay area teacher misconduct arrests, which gained national attention. (Photo from California Catholic Daily, 2007)

We're hearing a lot about this now. But is it really any worse now than it has been in the past?

Not in my opinion. I have been aware of this issue since the early '80s in my law practice. I, here in California, was hired by school boards to dismiss incompetent teachers then. At one point I was called by one of the superintendents who said, I've got one that I don't think you can do anything about, but here are the accusations. That was my first acquaintance with a sexual misconduct case. And pretty much the attitude was, well, you can't do anything about it unless you actually catch the teacher in bed with the student. So it was a very high threshold of evidence that was in peoples' way of thinking. So, that was way back when. As I was successful with that case, more and more of them came my way.

Do you think perhaps that as people pay more attention and each one of these cases gets attention, the more people are willing to say something?

Yes. And I think what is vitally important, and we'll see what happens this time, the issue of sexual abuse is cyclical. People pay attention to it, they get upset about it, things start to happen, and then it goes into the background. There is something about, it's almost so intolerable to deal with, that a community can only deal with it for a certain length of time and then it goes back to complacency rather than staying alert that this does go on. Sexual abuse in schools, it's an opportunistic crime. The people who tend to behave this way, they gravitate to schools.

Because there are children there, obviously.

Because there are children there. And we're naive in our thinking in terms of our saying, we send our children to school to be safe and that's that, that's the end of our responsibility. Schools should make the place safe. As long as parents have that kind of attitude, their children are not going to be safe. People need to know that this is an opportunistic crime. People who commit it go to schools. And they fly below the radar for years. So if parents and educators are not alert to the early warning signs, then children are going to continue to get hurt. So it isn't the pedophiles that are going to stop. It's the people in the educational environment, including the parents, including the administrators, including the other teachers and the staff, who have to make it stop.

How can they do that?

Well, by becoming aware of what the early warning signs are of this behavior and bringing that kind of training into their school districts. The classic training that has existed, initially it was in the area of sexual abuse outside school. So there were mandatory laws about that. And everybody got trained to spot a kid who came to school with bruises or who actually said, I got molested at home. ...

Then in came sexual harassment in the early '90s as a big emphasis. Which was a real good upstat, if you will. But those examples were usually about either employee to employee or student to student. There was so much politics around the idea that employees, particularly teachers, might be molesters, that those examples didn't get into the training. And what did get into the training, the teachers balked. They said it was a witch hunt. They said they were being unfairly mischaracterized.

So people, schools, tended to back down in terms of using those kinds of examples and including in their training what we call trolling behavior, grooming behavior and lulling behavior. And those behaviors are identifiable. And they can be taught. ...

Where it gets tough is how do you get people to report their suspicions, number one. And equally important, how do you get the school district to take effective action on the reported suspicion without simply reporting it to the police. Because they have this kind of threshhold thinking process, and the threshhold is, Do I have a reasonable suspicion of child abuse. ... What they're not yet good at is saying, Am I observing grooming behaviors that the police will not act upon because it is below the criminal threshhold. But the school district and all the employees need to get sophisticated enough to know how to act on those grooming type of behaviors that are the early warning signs. And they fall into a pattern.

Like what?

I'll give you one example. That is, if you have a teacher, or a guidance counselor, or a coach, who is removing a student from class, who gives the regular teacher a pass for this student. If that happens a number of times, well, what is this about? So, behaviors that are outside the ordinary, they're not just little quirks of a particular employee, they are early warning signs.

Some teachers might say, hey, I like that kid a lot, they help me out, and I have no sexual intentions. I just like the kid and want their help and want to help them.

Yeah. Well, what people need to do is, there are certain, if you will, profiles in standards of professionalism. And you'll find that 99 percent of teachers and staff are following those kind of innate professional guidelines, appropriate professional relationships. And then you have this wild card who's acting outside the bounds, who says, Well, I just like the kid. Or, I just want to help. But their behavior is outside, way outside, the norm. An inordinate amount of time focused on the children, almost to the extent that you wonder if this person has a life. You need to pay attention to those things.

I also do expert witness work across the nation. So I have dealt with cases all over our nation. And in the sense of being an expert of analyzing what should the school have done in these types of cases. And inevitably people saw this kind of warning behavior. And if they did, were bothered by it - and a number of them were and reported it to administration - often the administration would warn the employee, Gee, this might not look good for you. Watch your back. Rather than getting in there and doing an internal investigation. Because that sort of information should have triggered a quality internal investigation. ...

Do you go and talk to school districts about this? Do they hire you to do this?

Yes. I'm one of the nation's leading experts in this. I got so tired of dealing with these cases as a lawyer, I thought I must get proactive, I must do something. So I created a video series on sexual harassment and sexual abuse which includes adult to student behavior. Plus we have curriculum that we do across the United States. We train the districts in three levels - the awareness level, which is for every single school district employee and parent; the complaint intake level, which should be for every administrator at a school site; and then the inquiry-investigation level, which would be for a strong team of district administrators, maybe even counselors, who can check into this reasonable suspicion of grooming behavior, which will not trigger the need to go to the police yet but should definitely trigger internal action.

I've heard people talking about how there's always a bad egg, in a school district this large hopefully we can find them. It sounds like by using this kind of training, it could be easier to do.

Most definitely. And it's not one bad egg, as you're seeing. It's just not. There are some research reports ... one in 10 students reports to having been either sexually harassed or sexually abused by an adult in the school system. And it's not just a handful of them. Compared to the overall percentage of school employees, it's very small. But not compared to the amount of damage these people do. An average molester can molest up to 100 children. And again I want to take it away from this idea of one bad egg. It's just not that way. I have said, and I stand by it, that the likelihood that there's a sexual predator or molester in every school district is very high. Very high. It's highly likely. And if you take that to large school districts, you just multiply your odds. And then, the other thing I've seen is, it builds a culture in school districts if it's going on. I've seen coaches who end up getting an apartment across the street from school so they can take students over there and have sex with them. I've seen cases where, often it's employees who are engaged in extracurricular activities that are engaged in this type of abuse.

Don't students say, Eww, that's not what I want. I guess I have a little trouble seeing why a student would want to do this.

Well, that's what goes on in the trolling behavior. The predator - and, you know, this predator can be an adorable little 23-year-old - so I'm reluctant now to use the term predator because we think of some shady guy in a raincoat flashing people. But as we've seen, these are often very attractive, physically attractive, people who are the molesters. But what happens is they troll through the environment for susceptible kids. And they're often looking for someone whose personal boundaries are weak, because they have had a situation, either how they were raised had some difficulty to it, or their parents are going through a divorce. There's something that unroots the kids from a good strong base of support. And these people who hurt kids, they go looking for that. The needy kid. It could be a temporary need. But the kid at that point is needy. They need the attention, they need the validation, they need some adult input, and the abuser takes advantage of that. ...

And teenagers do not have adult brains. They don't understand the consequences. And many times these young people who have been molested in this way, their subsequent relationships are disrupted greatly. By about the age of 25, maybe, they begin to think, It wasn't my fault. Maybe it wasn't dating. Maybe it was something else. It takes distance for them to realize this person is not so hot. The other thing that happens in that abusive relationship, the oddness of the abuser ... gets all over the kid. In terms of that adult is screwed up. And then that kid is subjected to this screwed up adult and begins to wonder what is real in terms of values and standards. So they are messed up. ...

So I guess when we look at this whole situation ... there could be more going on that nobody even knows about. And we have to do a better job as a community to find out. Is that what you're basically saying to me?

Yeah. And if you say it that way, the retort could be, witch hunt. But there are ways ... to professionally and objectively set down standards. If those standards are in place and somebody insists on breaching those standards, then you've got a problem. And people have to know, if you breach these standards, we're going to have a problem with you. ...

Is there any other thing I should be asking you that I haven't?

... I think one other piece that ought to be looked at is these things happen in school districts. And the most important thing that can happen at this stage is that a proactive, preventive model be put in place. You know, we can tar and feather people for what has happened already. And that could people just get defensive. And you know, there's going to be enough potential litigation as it is. People will be held to account in that litigation. What people should really clamor for at this point is a quality preventive program that creates a safe, nurturing environment that the parents participate in. And that is possible.

[Last modified: Tuesday, May 25, 2010 9:38am]


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