Tuesday, February 7, 2012

On teachers and sexual abuse

Here is a Jezebel article that details the sexual abuse allegedly perpetrated by two teachers, Mark Berndt and Martin Bernard Springer, were spoon-feeding semen to and/or "fondling" their elementary school students over the years 2005 to 2010. From the article:
As bad as these new allegations are, there might still be more to come for Miramonte. Superintendent John Deasy said that he wants to fire Springer as soon as Tuesday, when the Board of Education will discuss the case in a closed session, and that he'll also urge the Board to fire Miramonte music teacher Vance Miller after two former students (now adults) have come forward with allegations that Miller had sexual relationships with them when they attended the school.
He added, however, that though he's "appalled" by the allegations of sexual abuse, "We must never lose sight of the fact that the great majority of the teachers in this district are caring, nurturing and understanding toward their students."
This last quote is what I would like to discuss in further detail. Obviously this school has some major problems in regards to hiring teachers, but - and I am about to say something extremely controversial - this is probably a case of pure coincidence. 3 teachers in one school, Miramonte Elementary School in Florence-Firestone California, have attracted and employed three male teachers who have allegedly sexually abused children. If this isn't a simple case of coincidence, the alternative is even more chilling, ie two pedophiles conspiring! But it is most likely that the two teachers figured out that they share sexual proclivities and then went on joint field trips (chilling enough!). No matter how these teachers got together, the problem facing this school and its future is one of media scrutiny. The school will come under intense observation over the next decade or two and when each teacher is hired to replace the next, that teacher and the school will suffer from protective parents, the eagle-eyed local media, and even the state government. There will be no escape from the horror that these two teachers and possibly a third allegedly did.

Now, I am not going to defend the accused teachers, nor am I going to minimize the trauma experienced by the victims and their families, which will unfortunately shape their lives for a long long long time. This is imminently regrettable and I wish it had never happened.

What I am also not going to do is complain about the hiring process of the administration. There is no way that the people who hired these teachers in the 70s and 80s could have possibly known their sexual proclivities. Nor could the hiring agent have predicted the seemingly epidemic of sexual abuse in schools. So I am not going to criticize them.

The day after the article at the top was posted, the elementary school announced that they would replace all the teachers. This might be gratuitous, but again, I am not going to criticize them.

What I am going to do is explore two things: the fact that the "good" teachers will suffer the fallout from this, and the fact that the media is reporting sexual abuse is seemingly on the rise, though I thoroughly suspect it is not. I am going to work on these points in reverse.

David Finkelhor and Lisa Jones of the University of New Hampshire have compiled data from numerous sources and have reported that
Various forms of child maltreatment and child victimization declined as much as 40–70% from 1993 until 2004, including sexual abuse, physical abuse, sexual assault, homicide, aggravated assault, robbery, and larceny.
Of course, regular data collection has not occurred over the past 40 years so our data is only for 15 years, really. This is a corollary to my initial point however.

The media reports these cases, and everybody is in shock. For many people, their reaction is to say that this never happened before. Because when Baby Boomers were growing up, sexual abuse between teachers and students was not as prevalent. My thesis is that it wasn't that abuse was less prevalent, it was simply not reported as widely as today.

We can essentially thank the modern education system for this perceived uptick in statistics and then its obvious and logical decline.

In The epidemic of rape and child sexual abuse in the United States, authors Diana E. H. Russell and Rebecca Morris Bolen report that the rape rate among females was 12 per 100,000 females in 1932 and 70 per 100,000 in 1997, which is of course a 483% increase. The authors admit that part of the increase is due to the change in methodology concerning reporting of rape and even the definition of rape (ie is it rape within a marriage? Short answer: yes). However, they contend that despite numerous sources claiming rape is declining, it is instead rising astronomically. The National Crime Victimization Survey or NCVS is reporting that rape is declining, but the authors claim this isn't true.

However, my point is that rape is being reported more but there is little evidence to support that rape is happening more. And again, circling back, we can thank the education system for making this happen.

When I was a child in elementary, there was a huge focus put on individuation, something I spoke of and will forever mention as it is a fascinating subject (pun related!). That is to say that individual space was prioritized and we were asked to imagine an invisible force-field around our bodies. Anybody who trespassed this space without permission was ethically in the wrong. We were asked to report any violation of the force-field. Watch this video that I was forced to watch over and over again in school:

If you didn't watch it, the song is called "My Body's Nobody's Body But Mine" by Peter Alsop. The best information I can find about this song is that it possibly came out in 1993, but I suspect it was slightly earlier than that. The lyrics, which you can guess, involve a simplified version of what I just said. My body deserves its own space and no one shall touch it without my permission.

Of course, this is Foucauldian in its panopticism, but it is also integral to teaching children about the power dynamic that occurs in the teacher-student discourse (discourse in the Foucauldian sense of the word). My point, if you haven't already figured it out, is that education such as this, in which the student is asked to report any violation of the power-dynamic, has been omnipresent since at least the late Eighties or the early Nineties. The education system has to be an integral factor in the rise of rape reporting thanks to its efforts in promoting reportage.

Again, this is totally anecdotal but after speaking with my parents and a few other people of the same age, I have determined that at least in Western Canada, this type of education did not exist in the 60s or 70s. Again, not totally scientific, but then again, neither is the media's reportage on this type of abuse.

Statistics will show an uptick in sexual abuse accusations once the education of reportage begins. It will also show a leveling out of accusations followed by a slow decline. However, counter-intuitively, I am willing to predict a rise in accusations due to numerous factors. First, population has increased around the world. Secondly, there are more people living in urban situations now than pastoral, which leads to the obvious conclusion that there are more children in public school systems now than before.

The third reason for my predicted rise in sexual abuse accusations? It's the second major point that I'd like to discuss: the media's representation of the education system.

Look, it's a fact that teachers are underpaid for a job in which they are responsible for the health, well-being and education of future generations, of the future ruling class. According to this website, the average salary for K-12 teachers is just above 40K. The "living wage" calculator at a couple different sites is telling me that the absolute minimum salary that one could live on is 25K. I can provide all sorts of numbers, but I think common sense will show us that the 15K "extra" on top of the living wage will go to debt reduction (student loans), car payments, mortgages, vacations, and other things guaranteed in the right to life, liberty and happiness.

Despite the fact that teachers are underpaid, they are totally demonized in the news. Read this polemic on "sorry state of education in the United States" or check out these stats at Wikipedia. Both of these claim that despite the US's 99% literary rate the country is woefully behind "third world countries". One of the articles claims that a high school diploma 50 years ago is equivalent to today's college degree.

That sounds mighty impressive and damning of the education system, doesn't it? But let's unpack that notion and see if we can't tease out the specious logic here. 50 years, the classroom wasn't chock full of technology. 50 years, there were no MRIs, no Internet, no word processors, no MP3 players, no cellphones. Television wasn't as ubiquitous and students walked to school in a blizzard, in their father's pajamas, uphill. Both ways.

Again, we're running into one of my most loathsome elements of human nature: nostalgia. As if the past was some Golden Age, as if there even existed a Golden Age at some point. The claim that high school diploma is equivalent to a college degree completely disregards how much there is to learn nowadays. Students are expected to be math whizzes and technological geniuses plus play every sport and engage in every extracurricular activity and volunteer work in order to get into a college that nobody can afford.

Helicopter parenting, or hyperparenting as I was taught the term, is a definite thing happening in school nowadays. It is indicative of the change in society that children are no longer left unsupervised. Why would they when the media is reporting rapists and abductors on every street corner? Instead of letting children go out and play, parents are attempting to organize and systematize their lives in order to a) guarantee a future and b) protect their lives. There is nothing inherently wrong about hyperparenting. It simply is. What is wrong is the media's focus on how this is wrong, but at the same time, are scaring parents into believing that the world is totally unsafe. Of course it is, but learning that it is unsafe is part of growing up.

The education system is not totally screwed up. The US boasts a 99% literary rate, and a 77% rate of graduating high school. Sure, that might be slightly lower than developing countries, but think of the fact that despite its comparison to other countries, over three quarters of our children are still graduating. Not only that, but most of them aren't being shipped off to meaningless wars in order to die for their country. The unemployment rate among high school graduates is a measly 10.4%. The rate for college graduates? Below 5%! Obviously high school is preparing students for university and thus, college grads are prepared for the real world if the national average is 8 and the college rate is less than 5!

Let us return to the main point of this post. If we agree that teachers are underpaid, but are on the whole providing a successful workforce, and are protecting our most valuable asset (future workers), then we must agree then the media is unfairly demonizing them and will continue to do so in light of the allegations of sexual abuse.

If sexual abuse is declining, thanks to in part the education system, then we cannot possibly blame them for the aberrations in statistics, such as three teachers in one school abusing children.

Can something be done about this in the future? Probably not. There is little way of screening applicants for pedophilia and one is legally barred from simply asking point blank or monitoring the teacher 24/7. Though that is what the media is going to clamor for. Watch! In a week's time, Dateline or 60 Minutes or a similar news magazine show will do a story on the evil lurking behind every classroom door. Expect to see lots of scary stats being trotted out and manipulated in favor of their point. The effect? Further moral panic regarding education systems.

A long term possibility thanks to the media's scare-tactics is the rise of home-schooled students. I don't know enough about home-schooling that I can make any value judgment on the efficacy of such a system, but I instinctively question the abilities of someone not trained to teach. Of course, this begs the logical opposition that the system in which someone is trained to teach can be fallible. Of course it can. That's facetious if only because that system of training teachers is still transitional. The education department in my University is less than 60 years old. It is still growing up and figuring out how to teach teaching. Despite this, I have faith, thanks to stats and my own education, that within twenty years, our graduating teachers will be able to teach math (despite claims of a math professor at U of M, who said that our future teachers do not know how to perform basic algebra).

Look, humans are incredibly smart and incredibly stupid at the same time. We've colonized most of the globe and most of our atmosphere. We've created unbelievable technological gadgets over hundreds of years and yet, we still manage to function as blithering idiots when faced with the same situations the Ancient Greeks did. Human nature is repetitious and paradigmatic. The media only reports the worst things because we respond to the worst things, especially in our overly humanist, overly sensitive era of the twentieth century, when even the robbing of an old lady causes our blood to boil. We respond to the bad news more strongly than the good so the media otherwise known as the market responds in turn. They provide what we want to hear: that the world is going to hell in a hand basket.


Just look at the stats.

EDIT 07/08/12

Steven Pinker quotes the very same Finkelhor/Jones study as I do on paage 439 of The Better Angels of our Nature. He writes
They corroborated the declining numbers with sanity checks such as victimization surveys, homicide data, offender confessions, and rates of sexually transmitted diseases, all of which are in decline. In fact over the past two decades the lives of children and adolescents improved in just about every way you can measure.
It's nice to have my hypothesis confirmed and expanded upon by a noted scientist. As well, both this study and Pinker's book (along with my theory) posit that this decline is due to changing social mores. They also hypothesize that it might also be due to increases in the availability of prescription drugs. Adults become less depressed and less likely to commit violence as well as help children control impulses. I'm rather ambivalent about this particular hypothesis, but that's another post for another day.

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