How I penetrated a wall of silence to document sexual abuse of Massachusetts students

Published on
April 16, 2024

One in 10. 

As many as 1 in 10 public school students may face sexual abuse or harassment by adults at school.

That statistic — gleaned from a 2004 report commissioned by the US Department of Education — exemplifies how little we know about how often such abuse and misconduct happens on and off school grounds, despite decades of calls for reform and more transparency. 

That 2004 report is the most recent federally commissioned survey of sexual abuse and harassment of students at U.S. K-12 schools. In a 2022 survey of 6,632 recent high school graduates in four states, 11.7% reported “at least one form of educator sexual misconduct during grades K-12” — most often, sexual comments. Fewer than 1% of those surveyed reported other forms of sexual misconduct such as receiving sexual photos and messages, being kissed, being touched sexually or engaging in sexual intercourse or oral sex. On a national scale, even 1% would amount to hundreds of thousands of cases.

Thanks to the support of USC Center for Health Journalism 2023 National Fellowship, I uncovered scores of cases of sexual abuse by Massachusetts public school staff over the past decades. I spoke with survivors who said that abuse has left them with lasting emotional scars and trauma. My reporting revealed that school districts fight to keep basic details about perpetrators secret, even in cases where abuse is documented. The second part of the series analyzed years of legislative inaction amid lobbying and opposition. And part three focused on signs of childhood sexual abuse and the impact on mental and physical well-being. 

I continue to wonder: How much harm could we as a society prevent if we knew more about how often sexual abuse of children occurs, where it’s happening and whether we’re doing a good enough job of screening employees and holding adults accountable?

As a longtime statehouse and local reporter, I did my best to amplify often-ignored voices and hold the powerful accountable. 

Here are my take-aways for reporters who want to investigate sexual abuse in schools in their communities: 

1. Recognize the courage of survivors. 

Survivors of sexual abuse courageously shared their stories with me. To gain insight into best practices for working with survivors, I turned time and time again to the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma, lessons from my training through the Center for Health Journalism National Fellowship, and advice from other journalists — including those in my fellowship class. 

As an investigative producer in broadcast journalism, I spoke with survivors from the beginning about what the story might look like on the air. We talked about how we could protect identities by filming in silhouette or using pseudonyms, and which B-roll, photos or documents we may use in their segments. 

Many of these survivors had spent years processing their trauma with experts; I was often awed by how directly and confidently they spoke about their needs and boundaries. Survivors had space to pose questions and raise thoughts about our reporting as well. Above all else, I focused on recognizing how much courage survivors had to speak in public about their traumas, and on respecting that courage by doing my best to empower them to tell their own stories.

2. Look into the legislative history.

How often have local and state officials raised concerns over the years? What happened when they did? Search for as many relevant bills as you can on your legislature’s website, and use Legiscan to see whether your state or others are currently considering similar bills. 

Do you see patterns in bill language with other states? Can you get testimonies of committee hearings, or can you watch or listen to past hearings? Get to know leading advocates and opponents: Ask for their testimony as well, and if possible, analyze how their arguments may have changed over the years. Are critics submitting opposing legislation? What have been the biggest arguments against a bill — are court precedents or legal restraints at play? Have bills been referred for study, and if so, did the legislature ever release a study? Does your statehouse legislative library have reports or other resources that may help you? Or, to what extent has a lack of prioritization of legislation played a role? Have leading lawmakers backed bills, or have they received support from majority and minority party members or leaders? 

Massachusetts’ Legislature is notoriously opaque. Unlike states such as Maine, which posts bill testimonies online, in Massachusetts legislative clerks said only lawmakers on committees may request copies of testimonials. That means powerful institutions – from unions to multinational corporations to the Catholic Church – can sway the fate of legislation without any transparency. I found that lawmakers for years have vowed to pass legislation to make it easier for survivors of sexual abuse to seek justice, but such efforts had floundered amid opposition from groups like the Catholic Church. 

The state auditor has vowed to look into our findings, and advocates hope that growing momentum could lead to change in 2024.

3. Look into lobbying and campaign finance records.

Follow the money, influence and power. Get acquainted with your state’s lobbying database, and if needed, take any training open to the public. 

Are insurance companies lobbying on bills to expand municipal liability for childhood sexual abuse? Are groups such as the national American Tort Reform Association fighting efforts to eliminate criminal statute of limitations for child sexual abuse cases? Reach out to registered lobbyists and check out whether their groups have put out annual reports disclosing their legislative agenda. Watch or listen to past hearings and get to know legislative committee members who may understand the shape of past discussions around bills – and who may be pulling strings behind the scenes. Check campaign finance reports for potential contributions to committee members. 

4. Become an expert on the available data.

Figure out which data exists. I found it was much easier to obtain data and records on student-on-student sexual assaults – because the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education requires schools to submit data on students disciplined for issues including sexual assault. 

For a separate story, I analyzed student discipline data and found glaring disparities: Nearly 70% of all students disciplined for sexual assault were Black or Hispanic. And that’s in a state where Black and Hispanic kids make up just one-third of students.

Schools also report incidents of documented rapes on school grounds to the U.S. Department of Education through a mandatory nationwide survey known as the Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC). Schools are not yet required to report whether perpetrators were students or school employees, though schools will be required to report that data in the 2022-2023 CRDC survey. 

I reached out to police departments in towns where schools had reported rapes. School districts and police agencies sometimes failed to respond at all to my records requests. At other times, police departments said they did not have any reports about rapes at those schools. And some schools that reported a rape to the CRDC said they did not have reports of any rapes. This could call into question the reliability or clarity of the survey data. It at least raises questions about whether there’s need for more federal oversight or intervention when schools appear to report sexual crimes on survey questions.

5. Collect your own data.

A well-organized database is key to making sense of hundreds of public records requests. Try crafting your records requests with the goal of receiving responses you can quantify and record in a database of your own. What kind of analyses would you want to do? Try sending out requests to a few agencies at first to gauge responses and tweak your language. Know your public records law and anticipate challenges — if you’re looking for numbers of documented incidents but know an agency might not collect that raw figure, ask for redacted reports so you can try to assemble numbers of your own. Once you begin receiving responses, input data as soon as possible. 

For my investigation, I found that police departments and school districts often declined to release any numbers of documented incidents of sexual abuse by school staff. They pointed to state laws blocking access to sexual assault reports — and they pointed out that the state records law doesn’t require entities to produce records they don’t already maintain. When I then asked agencies to answer a survey I sent out requesting that data, nearly all school districts declined to provide responses. Just one school confirmed that officials had dismissed two employees for sexual misconduct of students in recent years, but that school didn’t provide any more information. 

By reading record request responses, I unearthed important nuggets for my reporting. Schools had to report suspected abuse to the state Department of Children and Families (DCF) — meaning I could ask that entity for the number of abuse cases at schools. DCF ultimately told me they had supported dozens of incidents of documented sexual abuse of students each year. Still, DCF declined to say where those incidents happened or release the total number of findings in years with fewer than 10 findings. Instead, the department released a total figure for the years of data I requested. 

I found similar denial language from some school districts, which turned out to be receiving legal advice from the same law firms. Our story highlighted some of this troubling language, which in part argued that releasing documented findings of sexual abuse against school employees could “embarrass” perpetrators. I am continuing to fight for those records.

Because of the lack of transparency, I put together my own database. I looked at news reports, the state’s online civil and criminal records database and law enforcement press releases to find alleged cases — and then went to courthouses and reached out to clerks and prosecutors statewide to find out the final outcome of each case. I found ongoing criminal cases and lawsuits in numerous schools that had denied my public records requests.

25 Investigates found that since 2002, at least 75 school personnel in Massachusetts have faced criminal charges or lawsuits accusing them of sexually abusing students. 

At least 11 school staff have been criminally charged for sexual abuse in just 2022 and 2023.

And at least 17 public school employees have faced sex abuse lawsuits filed by students since 2002 – including six staffers who also faced criminal charges.

Those numbers are likely undercount incidents of abuse, given research into child sexual abuse cases. 

Still, in those criminal and civil allegations, I found as many as 150 students may have been abused by Massachusetts public school personnel. 

This kind of reporting is critical and can and should be replicated by other local newsrooms. I’m happy to serve as a sounding board for journalists pursuing similar efforts. 

My database is now a crucial reporting tool for our newsroom as we work on follow-ups and continue to fight for access to records.