Ten states have taken action in recent months to crack down on sexually abusive teachers following a stream of arrests and reports that have documented the problem of educators victimizing students.
Governors, state education officials and lawmakers have led the push for new measures, which include tougher penalties for teachers who abuse students, punishment for administrators who fail to properly oversee their faculty, and an effort to train an entire state's corps of teachers to recognize potential abusers in their midst.
At least four more states are still considering legislation. They are focusing on an increasingly undeniable phenomenon: While the vast majority of America's roughly 3 million public school teachers are committed professionals, a disturbing number have engaged in sexual misconduct.
When faced with evidence of abuse, administrators sometimes fail to let others know about it, and legal loopholes let some offenders stay in the classroom. "Too often in the past, we as adults have failed our children," Kentucky Gov Steve Beshear said when he signed a new law last month. "Today with this legislation, hopefully, we begin earning back their trust." The measure passed without a single no vote. Kentucky lawmakers originally drafted a measure aimed at abusive teachers, with the final legislation written broadly to encompass priests, teachers and anyone in authority over someone younger than 18.
Besides increasing penalties for abusers and giving prosecutors more time to bring charges, the Kentucky law also takes aim at officials who don't report abuse to authorities.
A nationwide Associated Press investigation, published in October, found 2,570 educators lost their teaching credentials or were otherwise sanctioned from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct. Experts who track sexual abuse say the problem is even bigger than those numbers suggest.
Underreporting is common, they say, because victims often are ostracized and accusations are difficult to prove. The AP series inspired some of the tougher measures, including Utah's legislation to permanently revoke the licenses of sexually abusive teachers and a new Maine law to share information about teachers disciplined for any reason, including sexual misconduct, with other states. A New York lawmaker cited the AP reports when he rallied support to overturn budget cuts that would have sharply reduced funds for investigators who examine abuse claims in school.
Meanwhile, stories on teacher misconduct by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and The Columbus Dispatch sparked action in Florida and Ohio.
New laws also were passed in Kansas, Minnesota and Virginia, while measures are still being considered in California, Colorado, Delaware and Massachusetts. New York and South Carolina began or expanded programs targeting the problem.