Press Release

PRESS RELEASE: New DFI Report Uncovers a Systemic Failure by Federal, State, and Local Authorities to Prevent Sexual Abuse of Students in Public Schools

Teacher unions, school districts, and the U.S. Department of Education must be held accountable for the epidemic of sexual abuse in public schools

WASHINGTON—A new report released today by the Defense of Freedom Institute for Policy Studies (DFI) finds that public schools have experienced an epidemic of sexual abuse and that federal, state, and local authorities have not done enough to ensure that students are protected during the school day.  

The most recent federal data from over 97,000 schools across the nation documents DFI’s finding. For the 2015–16 school year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) reported 9,649 incidents of sexual violence; of that number, 394 constituted instances of rape or attempted rape. For 2017–18, the numbers were 13,799 and 685, respectively—an increase of 43 percent and 74 percent.

The DFI report titled “Catching the Trash” finds that, when public school employees are investigated for sexual abuse, many school districts are under no legal obligation to notify parents or note the investigation in the employee’s personnel file. This allows administrators to pawn off known abusers to different schools and districts in a phenomenon called “passing the trash.” 

A public school employee who sexually abuses children is, on average, passed to three school districts and can abuse up to 73 children before they are fired or face legal consequences. The report points to collective bargaining agreements negotiated between teacher unions and school districts as a “key contributor to the problem, as they ‘often allow for scrubbing of personnel files,’” so no record of abuse is left once an offender leaves the system.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) requires states to have policies that prevent “passing the trash,” but most states fall short. As of the date of publication of “Catching the Trash,” only a handful of states—such as Ohio, Oregon, and Tennessee—ban school employees from helping abusers find work in other districts and also ban confidentiality agreements that would prevent an abusive teacher’s prior employer from sharing information about his or her misconduct with prospective employers.

“This report uncovers failures at every level to protect students from sexual abuse in public K–12 schools,” said DFI President and Co-Founder Bob Eitel. “What’s most shocking is the lengths to which teacher union leaders will go to protect their members suspected of abusing students and the number of states that have ignored their ESEA ‘pass the trash’ obligations. It’s long past time for real action on this issue. This report lays out achievable but powerful solutions that state legislatures, the U.S. Department of Education, and Congress could implement tomorrow to put an end to these horrid occurrences.”

Between 2010 and 2019, complaints to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights  (OCR) about sexual violence in K-12 schools more than tripled. 

In February 2020, then-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos launched a new Title IX initiative to combat sexual assault in public schools, charging OCR with taking aggressive enforcement steps on the issue. OCR also added several questions to the CRDC requesting schools to provide data on the number of reported cases involving sexual misconduct by public employees against students. When the current administration proposed removing those questions from the next CRDC, OCR received severe public criticism. The Department ultimately retained the questions.

DFI’s report lays out proposed reforms at the state and federal level to prevent sexual abuse in K–12 public schools:   

Reforms for State Legislatures

  • Ban secret agreements between school districts and public employees that prevent future employers from knowing about investigations and findings of sexual abuse of students by employees on school grounds, on school transportation, and in school-sponsored activities
  • Bar provisions in collective bargaining agreements that authorize secret agreements preventing school district personnel from knowing about investigations and findings of sexual abuse by employees of students on school grounds, on school transportation, and in school-sponsored activities
  • Impose penalties on school district personnel who assist an employee in finding a new job in a different school or district despite having knowledge that the employee engaged in sexual misconduct with students
  • Impose penalties on any school district employee who knowingly fails to report to law enforcement or child protective services an incident of sexual misconduct against a student on school grounds, on school transportation, and in school-sponsored activities

Reforms for the Department of Education

  • Revive the prior administration’s Title IX K–12 enforcement policy and, where appropriate, take steps to withhold federal dollars from local education agencies that repeatedly fail to comply with Title IX
  • Require states to comply with ESEA’s requirement to pass legislation prohibiting the practice of passing the trash and outlawing secret agreements that hide sexually abusive behavior by K–12 employees

Reforms for Congress

  • Amend the ESEA to clarify penalties to be imposed upon states that fail to prohibit school personnel from aiding and abetting sex abusers in obtaining new employment, specifying a certain percentage of K–12 funding to be withheld for noncompliance
  • Pass a transparency law requiring K–12 schools and school districts to inform, on an annual basis, parents, students, and teachers about incidents of violent criminal activity, including sexual abuse, that occur on school grounds, on school transportation, and in school-sponsored activities

To read “Catching the Trash” and to learn more about the solutions DFI is proposing to protect students from sexual abuse, click here.