Recognizing Sexual Grooming

By Michael A. Patterson and Donald F. Austin

School districts that want to protect students from sexual misconduct by staff should consider ways to prevent “sexual grooming,” a task that is difficult because such grooming often is only evident after the fact.

In most sexual misconduct cases, a form of “grooming” takes place. Preventing it can be very difficult, in part because sexual grooming can be quite subtle and similar to innocent behavior. In fact, many experts are not willing to label conduct as “sexual grooming” until intent has been established by actual molestation. However, the best way for school districts to prevent the grooming is by stopping inappropriate boundary invasions.

Even though this makes common sense, it’s a fairly novel idea in both law and schools. Only one state -- Texas -- and a handful of school districts have specific board policies addressing boundary invasions.

Our recommendations for dealing with this issue are based on hundreds of litigated cases involving allegations of childhood sexual molestation and listening to testimony of victims and experts such as Timothy Kahn, a private clinician who specializes in sexual behavior and deviancy and is recognized as an expert in court cases relating to sexual predators. It also is based on the experiences of other sexual offender counselors who have listened to hundreds of offenders tell their stories.

State regulations on professional conduct, combined with board policies and practices, can accomplish the goal of stopping inappropriate boundary invasion behavior. Boundary invasion concepts are important to understand because of personnel situations, collective bargaining investigations, and instances in which board members and superintendents need general advice and guidance.

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