SALEM — In his position as claims director for the Massachusetts Interlocal Insurance Association, David Dowd gets the call when a school district or municipality is sued.
And increasingly, those calls are to let him know that a student or former student is alleging sexual abuse by an educator or other school employee.
Yet even in the #metoo era and nearly five decades after Title IX — a federal statute barring discrimination based on gender in schools — became law, Dowd still hears things that surprise him — and make him cringe.
"They'll say, 'Well, there were rumors, but we thought it was just gossip,'" said Dowd, referring to school administrators, who are also frequently being named in lawsuits. Or, he'll be told that a complaint was made, an administrator spoke to a teacher, the teacher denied it and nothing else was done to investigate or report the complaint to authorities — despite state and federal laws that require action.
On Thursday, more than 50 school administrators, police and town officials and representatives of the district attorney's office gathered at Salem State University's Viking Hall for a training session that was co-hosted by the MIIA and Massachusetts Citizens for Children, an advocacy group better known as MassKids.
MassKids executive director Jetta Bernier said her organization jumped at the chance to get the word out about their campaign, "Enough Abuse," and help educate public officials about steps they should be taking to identify and prevent victimization of children.
With an estimated one in 10 children facing sexual or other abuse at the hands of a school employee during their academic career, that could mean as many as 100,000 children in Massachusetts schools who are being victimized each year, Bernier said Thursday.
Dowd said he has seen complaints from victims who say they felt more traumatized by the way a school district handled their complaint than they were by the original abuse.
In one case, a student was being harassed and bullied both at school and outside.
The bullying and harassment escalated to the point where the student withdrew from school.
School officials were confident, however, that the student's problems were actually the result of longstanding issues at home, not anything at school.
Then, Dowd got a call from the lawyer representing the district. "We're in trouble," Dowd said he was told. An investigation revealed that the school had failed to take any action after the initial complaint. A retiring principal failed to pass along the information to a replacement. No one spoke to witnesses or documented evidence of the bullying. And despite threats against the student — potentially a crime — no one called the police.
The district, which Dowd did not identify, settled the case.
"More and more schools are starting to say, 'We have to get smart about this,'" said Bernier in an interview.
Bernier said she's constantly being approached by people who ask her to conduct training at their school.
Principals often don't know what steps to take when they get a report, she said.
Dowd told the group that sometimes, administrators fear that if they take action to address a complaint against an employee, they could face a lawsuit from the employee.
But other times, Bernier said, it's simply human nature to believe a longtime colleague or friend over a child, especially when a teacher or other professional doesn't fit the image people have of a pedophile.
She cited research showing that some abusers end up doing so not because of pedophilia as it's traditionally defined, but because of a "situation" they find themselves in, such as substance abuse or a failing marriage.
One of the goals of Enough Abuse is to help schools establish policies and codes of conduct, which make it easier for colleagues to report concerning behavior, said Bernier.
The group has put together a list of 20 behaviors that indicate some level of "boundary violation," and which, Bernier said, have the potential to escalate — even when the original behavior was entirely innocent.
The list includes commenting on a student's physical appearance, making sexual or suggestive jokes or gestures, touching, engaging in physical affection, or "roughhousing" with a student or offering help with things they're capable of doing on their own; showering with students after sporting events or spending time in the locker room; using "pet" names for kids or letting students call them by their first name; providing gifts, offering rides or taking kids to events off campus; meeting with students behind closed doors; photographing students; sharing personal phone numbers or emails, exchanging text messages and "friending" students on social media; sharing stories about their personal life, or offering to "counsel" students despite a lack of training in that area.
School codes of conduct allow employees or even other students to report such behavior without concerns that they are overreacting or getting someone in trouble, Bernier said.
In one district, she said, an older teacher who called students "dearie" and patted their back, unaware that it was making some of the students uncomfortable, simply had to be told that some students were taking it the wrong way.
Salem Sen. Joan Lovely, who spoke briefly at Thursday's session, has filed legislation that would close loopholes in the law, including a measure that would eliminate consent as a defense when adults in a position of responsibility over children are found to have engaged in sexual activity with teenagers who have reached the age of 16 (the age of consent for sex in Massachusetts).
Too often, said Bernier, an abusive adult can manipulate a teenager into believing that they are in love, hindering efforts to hold them accountable.
Another bill would require school districts to disclose accusations of abuse against a teacher to subsequent employers. Nine other states now have such laws, said Bernier.
"People don't want to talk about it," said Lovely, whose own family has been affected by sexual abuse. "People will say it doesn't happen in my world."
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis.
For more information on the Enough Abuse campaign and sexual abuse of children, visit http://www.enoughabuse.org/