Massachusetts education officials have been investigating a growing number of educators for alleged misconduct — including sexual assaults, substance abuse, and criminal activities — which has resulted in the reprimand, suspension, or revocation of 371 licenses over the past five years, according to a state report released this week.
Nearly one-third of the 774 investigations launched by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education since 2012 involved educators who potentially crossed boundaries with children or adults in areas including sex, pornography, or touching.
Sexual misconduct is considered to be among the most serious transgressions by educators against students. It can derail their education and set them up for a lifetime of psychological trauma and other problems.
“The number of cases is disturbing,” said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “One is too many. One of our jobs as educators is ensuring the safety and welfare of children. If we have an educator who has violated that trust, it has to be dealt with every intention of protecting the children.”
The report did not disclose specific cases or reveal the identities of educators who were reprimanded or lost their licenses. But the report found that the number of annual investigations has doubled from 107 in 2012 to 219 last year. The uptick appears to be continuing into this year, with the department opening 125 investigations as of July 31.
Data was provided only on licensed educators, who include teachers, administrators, and education specialists. But for the most part, that list excludes classroom aides, coaches, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and custodians among others.
State education officials plan to present the report next week to the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, which requested the data months ago as it weighed a proposal to simplify the educator licensing process.
The board will be taking up the issue as a local school system is embroiled in a controversy over potential educator misconduct. Earlier this week, Stoughton school officials confirmed a high school teacher recently resigned after they moved to fire him as police were investigating a potential inappropriate relationship between him and a former student.
The report also comes a month after a controversial decision by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to rescind Obama-era regulations that required college campuses to aggressively investigate allegations of sexual misconduct or run the risk of losing federal dollars.
Several educator and victim rights advocacy organizations said they believe the increase in investigations — especially in the area of abuse — likely reflects heightened awareness about appropriate boundaries and a growing willingness of victims to come forward, rather than an increase in violations. Many hope to see more reporting.
But victims still face a tough road, said Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, a national nonprofit serving Massachusetts and Oregon.
“What I see oftentimes is when a beloved teacher, coach, or minister is accused of rape or sexual assault — they are in such power — they get the community to support them, and the kid and the family are ostracized,” she said. “I have had cases where the community has not supported the victim and supported the perpetrator, despite clear evidence the person was committing a crime.”
She added, though, “If a student gets support immediately and is believed immediately . . . the student can thrive.”
The number of individuals investigated represent a tiny portion of the state’s approximately 96,000 licensed eductors, three-quarters of whom are teachers.
“The vast majority of the Commonwealth’s educators are caring, professional people whose first concern is for students and their safety,” said Jacqueline Reis, a state education spokeswoman, in a statement. “In the rare instances in which an educator is alleged to have engaged in misconduct, we investigate and bring the matter to resolution, which may entail revoking the license. We work with districts and law enforcement to ensure that educators who have committed gross misconduct or are otherwise unfit to perform their duties will not work in public schools in the future.”
The report found the largest number of investigations — 328 — involved “conduct unbecoming” of an educator, ranging from substance abuse to criminal charges.
Other cases, in far smaller numbers, concerned physical abuse, neglect, child support delinquency, and suspicions of cheating on the MCAS or a licensing exam for administrators.
The department closed 60 cases without taking any action against the educator, while 326 — more than three dozen of which date to 2012 — remain open. An additional 17 cases resulted in applicants for a license being denied one.
Public school administrators are required, under state law, to notify the state education commissioner any time they dismiss an educator for reasons that could affect their licenses, or if that individual resigns amid a school district investigation of those kinds of allegations.