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August 22, 2008


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This also seems like an unnecessary burden to put on the FBI as well, especially when there are already huge delays in doing, for example, name-checks for citizenship applications (leading to court cases in some areas). Even if the FBI just does a quick check and not a real background search this surely puts an additional burden on them and slows down more plausible uses of resources.

Tracy McGaugh

Dan, I'm assuming -- perhaps wrongly -- that you don't have daughters. As the mother of two daughters, I want everyone who even gets to look at my children at school to have a criminal background check. Tutors have just enough time with these girls to take a liking to them and then follow them home. I'm willing to forego having my teenage daughter benefit from the wisdom of second- and third-year law students while the students' background checks are processed. Ask the parent of any daughter what they value more: having their daughter tutored by law students or keeping their daughter away from potential pedophiles?

Pedophilia panic? This doesn't even come close.

Howard Wasserman

Of course, the victims of pedophiles are *overwhelmingly* boys. And children are far more likely to be abused by a family member or family friend than by a once-a-week school tutor. So Tracy's argument trying to knock Dan's argument down--we must protect our daughters from pedophile stalkers in our school hallways--is underinclusive. Actually, the argument illustrates what we mean by moral panic--we take policy steps that do not fully address the problem to resolve something that is not, in fact, the heart of the problem.

Dan Filler

I understand where you're coming from Tracy. I'm a parent and it is horrible to imagine my kids being victimized. And the horror of these images leads concerned parents to support everything from Megan's Law to death for child rapists. It's a reasonable response. But it is simply not clear that these awful things happen with the regularity that the media suggests, so many of us believe, or would support the radical social policies we've adopted on this issue. At some point, we have to consider the actual level of risk - or the costs of these policies will actually make us all worse off.

Ann Bartow

I have no idea where Howard got his data, but in response I offer this:

"In 2004, a report from the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights revealed that teachers are more likely than priests to sexually abuse minors. The report said that previous studies from the early 1980's to 1991 showed that one in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused by a teacher by age 18. Another revealed that 17.7 per cent of males who graduated from high school and 82.2 per cent of females reported sexual harassment by faculty or staff during their years in school."


And more generally, this report:

It surveys a range of literature, and every single study it reviewed found that female students were victimized more frequently than males. And, pertinent here, the data shows that teachers who have individual time with students - coaches, tutors, music teachers, etc. abuse students at far higher rates. Moot court coaches would seem to fit this category. If a law student with bad intentions was looking for a way to have access to high school kids, this might look like a good opportunity. Creepy to think about for sure.

I'm not sure how effective background checks are, but requiring them doesn't strike me as all that unreasonable.

Dan Filler

Ann, I wonder if you'd really want to bind yourself to the data you've cited. First off, the Catholic League did NOT say that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys is sexually abused by a teacher by age 18. It only said that someone, somewhere had abused them by that age - and that statistic is itself questionable. And in raising the sexual harassment data in the context of pedophilia and sexual abuse, the Catholic Leauge is using the classic tactic of advocacy groups promoting a social panic. The fact that 82% of females were subject to sexual harassment in school does tell us much about rates of pedophilia or the need for criminal background checks. Why cite it in that context if not as a form of prestidigitation? The League's problematic report is here:

Ann Bartow

Dan, your link goes nowhere when I click on it. I offered the first link as a rebuttal to Howard's claim that "the victims of pedophiles are *overwhelmingly* boys." Without any link at all.

You didn't mention the report at the second link at all, which synthesizes a number of studies, all of which found higher rates of abuse of girls than of boys.

I agree that background checks may not be particularly effective way to address the problem, but there does actually seem to be a problem.

Dan Filler

Thanks for the heads up Ann. I think it's fixed now - or it should be. As for the second issue, the data you provide does suggest higher levels of victimization among girls.

Howard Wasserman

On an admittedly quick glance, the DOE Report makes the same move as the Catholic League study. It focuses on "sexual misconduct," broadly defined to include "physical, verbal, or visual. Examples include touching breasts or genitals of students; oral, anal, and vaginal penetration; showing students pictures of a sexual nature; and sexually-related conversations, jokes, or questions directed at students." Again, the study throws sexual harassment, sexually charged conversations, and sexual relations between teachers and 17 1/2-year-old high school students (all of which I could see being more frequently targeted at girls, and probably older girls, than boys) into a discussion of pedophilia. All of this is a serious social problem, but it is a very different social problem than true pedophilia.

Ann Bartow

Howard, the issue Dan raised was background checks for law students GOING INTO HIGH SCHOOLS. I don't know how you define "true pedophilia" but if you mean sexual abuse of prepubescent children, I don't know why that is relevant to Dan's post, or the concerns Tracy raised, which again pertain to high school.

Howard Wasserman


That actually proves the basic point of Dan's post--the fingerprinting policy reflects a moral panic over pedophilia ("pedophilia panic" in Tracy's words). It is a policy that does nothing to remedy the core problem and creates administrative hassles (as Dan's students seem to be experiencing). Note, by the way, that if the concern is sexual harassment and sexual relations between a teacher/tutor and an above-the-age-of-consent high school student (as Tracy describes), fingerprinting and criminal background checks in all likelihood do no good. That conduct is not criminal, so past incidents will not necessarily appear in the background check. And the people who might have histories of sexually abusing young/pre-pubescent children likely are not the same people who would sexually harass or become involved with older high schoolers.

Ann Bartow

Howard, you make a lot of generalizations that I do not think are supportable. I have already agreed that background checks may not catch many potential bad actors. But if someone with a criminal history of sexual abuse is allowed to coach moot court and then offends again, I wouldn't want to be in the shoes of the school administrator who waived the background checks.

Sexual contact between high school students and their teacher is illegal in many jurisdictions regardless of whether the student has reached the "age of consent," which you can ascertain yourself by doing some research. See e.g.

Students as young as 13 attend high school, and the statistics on how many female students become pregnant by their teachers is staggering, and that is only a fraction of the number of students who have sexual contact with teachers, coaches etc. See if you can get the data on your own school district - if you can, I'd bet you are in for a rude awakening. The large urban school district where I live dismisses dozens of faculty and staff members for "inappropriate student contact" every year, and research suggests we are not outliers in that regard.

Incidentally, background checks would be a bit better at preventing repeat offenses if there wasn't such a marked tendency toward cover ups, see e.g.



I came here from Corey's blog, where I comment frequently. I just have to say that the comments by the women here strike me as, well, incredible. This is high school we are talking about which means no kids under 12 years old. I could understand if this was elementary, but high school??? Seriously, your 12 year old daughter is not a "precious snowflake". Get out of helicopter mode. By the time she is 12 she should be able to handle herself on this issue, seriously. I have two nieces that age and they can take care of themselves quite well, thank you.

The larger issue here is not pedophiles. It's lousy parents wanting to dump their failures on schools. Sure kids have diminished judgment; but by the time they are in high school they should have some judgment. Enough judgment that you don't get into the van with the "Free Candy" sign. All the school is doing is trying to protect itself from lawsuits because people like Ann and Tracey will sue them because they never taught their daughter how to say "no".

Sorry, gals. I think your emotional reaction is all out of proportion to the facts, and frankly common decency.

Brian Cavner

This strikes me as a classic "damned if you do, damned if you don't" situation.

On one hand, the "pedophile panic" is clearly alive and well. While an appropriate level of fear is acceptable for any crime, there comes a point when people are inundated with such a volume of scare tactics that they become "too afraid". That there is such a volume of sexual harassment of pupils by teachers indicates that background checks are insufficient in dealing with the problem. If we accept that a full 82% of female students are sexually harassed before graduation by people who have (presumably) also been background checked, how effective is this procedure really in protecting children? To subject volunteers to the same treatment lowers volunteer willingness and forces unnecessary expense, but yet seems to do nothing to minimize the risk.

On the other hand, though, imagine the outcry if something did happen and it turns out that the school did nothing to screen volunteers. Background checks may do nothing to address the problem, but at least it helps to shield the school somewhat from liability if a student does become victimized.

There seems to be no real good short-term solution, unfortunately.

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