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Prepare to be Horrified

Oct 27, 2015

for blog.jpgPrepare to be horrified. Or outraged. Or both. In a nearly impossible to comprehend story, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) contends that a 13 year old female student bears responsibility for being sexually abused by her male math teacher. In court, the school district put forth the argument that an 8th grader who was groomed and seduced by her teacher “learns maturity from the experience and is unlikely to ever need counseling as a result.”

In 2011, M.S. (minor) received a Facebook friend request from her math teacher, Elkis Hermida. He began sending her sexually explicit messages. After some time, he called her into his classroom to hug and kiss her and eventually had oral, anal, and vaginal sex with her over the next few months—sometimes at a motel and sometimes on campus. When the abuse was discovered, Mr. Hermida was arrested, convicted of “lewd acts with a minor” and sentenced to 3 years (!) in prison. (You can read the Atlantic article here.)

Subsequently, the victim’s family sued the school district for negligence. It was in this trial that the expert witness for the school district asserted that because the victim had been previously sexually active, the abuse from the male teacher was unlikely to have a negative effect on the victim. Therefore, LAUSD, the second largest school district in the country, maintained that the victim’s sexual relationship with her teacher was consensual and the school district bore no responsibility. The case was eventually appealed and last month the appellate court ruled that a student who is sexually abused by a teacher bears no responsibility for the abuse.

There is so much that could be said about this case and perhaps so much that deserves to be said. EVERYTHING is wrong about how this middle school girl was betrayed by layers of adults whose job it is to protect her and all the other children in their care. A large part of my sadness about this case comes from my disappointed hope that our collective efforts to raise awareness about the sexual abuse of children are having enough of a positive effect. It is really incomprehensible to me that a school district would argue that a 13 year old student would bear responsibility for her sexual abuse from her teacher.

It does seem, however, that we have a particularly dangerous blind spot when it comes to the sexual abuse of students by teachers and other school authorities. This is validated by the fact that we actually have very few reliable statistics on the incidents of teacher to student sexual abuse. This, in and of itself, is rather startling. Do we discount this type of abuse so much that we don’t even bother to document and analyze its prevalence?

Teachers, coaches, and other school personnel in positions of authority have unique access to students day in and day out. They also have the trust of students, their parents and of the community in general. Pair this with the dreadfully deficient track record that schools have in dealing swiftly with any suspicion of an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and students and you have a nation of students who are at risk. One report mandated by Congress estimated that as many as 4.5 million students, out of approximately 50 million in American schools, are subject to sexual misconduct by an employee of a school sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade.

At the least, my deepest wish is that once and for all we could put to rest ANY question about who bears responsibility with when a child is sexually abused. As is sickeningly evident in the LAUSD case, when it comes to teachers who sexually abuse their students, there is often an entirely incorrect assumption that students (especially middle and high school) bear some responsibility for a sexualized relationship. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is no such thing as a consensual sexual relationship between teacher and student. Each and every teacher, coach, and school administrator, as is true for all other adults, bear the entire responsibility for keeping all children safe from harm.

~ Janice Palm, M.A., LMHC