Child sexual abuse and special ed

A bird's-eye view of students in uniforms walking down a shadowy corridor.

They got caught engaging in sexual activity on campus. Four underage teens were caught engaging in sexual activity on campus – two girls performing oral sex on two boys while one boy was the lookout, though not very good at it because they were, as previously mentioned, caught. But not before a bunch of damage was done. High schools have a lot to learn about teen sexuality and students with disabilities.

I work in high school special ed, and early in my classroom career, I was confronted with a huge situation I was ill-prepared for. There is training of sorts; they basically tell you to report everything and call child protective services if abuse occurs. Yeah, sure, you kind of think you’ll never need to.

It’s incredibly easy and incredibly ableist to look at a classroom full of teenagers with intellectual disabilities and think of them as “innocents.” These kids have hormones, desires, and different levels of understanding as to what a relationship is and what sex is. When a 16-year-old pulls out all their Paw Patrol toys in the morning, you just don’t assume they’ll be caught performing oral sex on a classmate at lunch.

It was not just early in my career at this time; it was very early in the school year when 3 of my students and two from another class, all minors, decided to make lunch more interesting. And here’s what gets me every single time: this had happened before with some of these students. There was a history no one informed me of before making their safety my job. In the weeks following the incident, I learned a lot about how the school had already let these kids down and how it would continue that trend.

There was a lot of confusion at first, but one student came to me and told me everything from his perspective. He had been assumed to be an aggressor purely because of his gender. He was the youngest and least informed about safety and consent. It was assumed that all three boys involved were the aggressors. The stories I got as time went on pointed instead to a ringleader/aggressor in the form of the oldest student involved – a girl with a history of this behavior.

In shock over what had happened to him and having been accused of being at fault, my 14-year-old male student came to me and cried, having realized he was assaulted and fearing things like unplanned pregnancies and STIs. I reassured him carefully, unsure what I was even allowed to say to him, and took him to report to a counselor. A statement was taken from him by the counselor…and was then ignored.

After almost no investigation of the situation, the admin let everyone down. The ultimate decision was that all parties were intellectually delayed/disabled, so the concept of consent wasn’t relevant. I was told they all couldn’t consent, but also they all consented. Two boys involved were already in different classes, but I had two victims and the instigator in my classroom. No amount of advocating for my students made anything useful happen.

I briefly went toe to toe with an assistant principal and almost got myself in trouble for trying to explain that my kids didn’t feel safe. No possible solutions were even explored. I was shut down and learned a valuable lesson about the support I would never get.

I didn’t know how to explain to a 14-year-old with almost no sex education and a 16-year-old who had already been harmed by the 17-year-old senior who instigated everything that they had to stay in class with their abuser. I didn’t know how to make them safe. I didn’t know how to explain to them that, ultimately, their abuser was a victim too.

There were no steps taken towards restorative justice or harm reduction. The adults were told to watch the kids better, and it was over. I was left to help my students through this. Thankfully both had outside therapists. I spent the rest of the school year never letting these students out of my sight. It was incredibly stressful and sucked for them. As teenagers, they were not even afforded the freedom to walk from the classroom to the cafeteria and back. I felt awful robbing them of a more normative high school experience.

The parents had questions and asked where we had been and how we could let this happen, and I could not tell them that there was a history I was not informed of. I was not allowed to tell them that our classroom was not properly staffed and that we simply didn’t have the adults necessary to cover our bases. I wasn’t allowed to say that if administrators had done their jobs the first time this happened, the classroom would have been adequately staffed, and these kids would have been kept apart.

I felt like the worst person in the world. While not a CSA survivor, I am a sexual assault survivor, and all of this was very triggering. I felt so responsible and couldn’t believe these kids had experienced something that would negatively impact them for the rest of their lives on my watch.

And then I learned more and felt worse.

The oldest of the bunch, the true instigator, the one I found it easy to blame, was a victim herself, and I was blind to it for a long time. A 17-year-old girl with intellectual delays that weren’t apparent at first. Delightful, right up until she isn’t, and big, violent, and sexual behaviors come out. She is very hard to deal with and regularly elopes from supervised situations. She is houseless and stays between friends’s and family’s couches with her mother. It is unclear how much her father is in the picture, and we do not know exactly how many siblings there are. Her mother encourages drug use, which sometimes happens live on social media. She brags about being underage and dating men who are adults. It seems likely that mom is both delayed and undiagnosed. It is also likely that the mom is modeling risky sexual behaviors.

This is not the description of a predator, but rather of a minor using sex and drugs to escape her reality. This is a child who is being taken advantage of by older men. Her disability presents more as risky behavior than a delay at first blush, but she cannot truly understand the possible ramifications of her actions. In conversation with her, I learned that she “wants a baby” but thinks it’s a lot like having a puppy.

So I ended up with three students with bleeding psychological wounds and, in some cases, physical injuries. And while managing all of these moving parts, they still had academic goals to work on. These kids deserved better. They deserved more respect. They should not have been looked at only through the filter of their disabilities. Ableism caused direct harm in this situation.

And frankly, it was outright disinterest on the part of the administration, the people truly responsible and representing us, that made almost the entire school year a nightmare full of PTSD setbacks. You can’t give a math test to a kid whose PTSD is making them so paranoid they think they are being watched at all times by shadowy figures. You’re not making reading comprehension progress with a kid who can only manage part of the day before putting their head on their desk and completely shutting down.

Special education and students with disabilities deserve a great deal more respect than they get. Most SpEd departments are understaffed and underfunded. Administrators forget what the classroom is like almost as soon as they get promoted. These are common things in a lot of schools in a lot of places. Disabled kids have a much better chance at staying safe in life with things like appropriate and comprehensive sex education and an emphasis on consent as a concept and a reality. Their experiences and trauma need to be taken seriously. And their need for human connections should not be thought of as so separate from typically developing kids.

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