Millions of children might be victims of sexual misconduct by teachers or other public school employees, according to a draft report commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education.

Despite the lack of sufficient data, the scope of the problem appears to far exceed the priest-abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, according to the report’s author, Charol Shakeshaft, professor of educational administration at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y.

The report, required by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, concludes the issue “is woefully understudied,” reports Education Week.

Nearly 10 percent of students have been targeted with unwanted sexual attention by school employees, the best available data indicates, according to Shakeshaft.

The mistreatment ranges from sexual comments to rape, says the report, titled “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature.”

“So we think the Catholic Church has a problem?” Shakeshaft asked, according to Education Week.

She notes the recently released study by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found 10,667 young people were sexually mistreated by priests from 1950 to 2002.

She compares that with her extrapolation from a national survey for the American Association of University Women Educational Foundation in 2000, which would indicate roughly 290,000 students experienced some sort of physical sexual abuse by a public school employee from 1991 to 2000.

That is a single decade, she points out, compared to the approximately five decades covered by the Catholic report.

The figures suggest that “the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests,” said Shakeshaft, according to the education magazine.

The National Education Association disputes Shakshaft’s conclusion, Education Week said, calling it “a misuse of the data to imply that public schools and the Catholic Church have experienced the same level of abuse cases.”

“I take great umbrage at that suggestion,” NEA spokeswoman Kathleen Lyons told the magazine. “That just seems like someone is reaching conclusions based on half the data that’s needed.”

Shakeshaft acknowledged many factors could alter the analysis, including undercounting of youth abused by priests, but she argued this provides impetus for better research.

“Educator sexual misconduct is woefully understudied,” Shakeshaft says in the draft report. “We have scant data on incidence and even less on descriptions of predators and targets There are many questions that call for answers.”

Carlin Mertz, an Education Department spokesman, told Education Week federal officials did not want to make substantive comments about the report until it had been reviewed by the agency and made final.

Initially, Shakeshaft understood the report was to lay the groundwork for a broad national study on sexual abuse in schools, but last May she was told to retool the report and officials say they have no more plans at the moment to study the issue.

Shakeshaft believes, however, that could endanger students.

“A review of what we know about educator sexual misconduct tells us that in order to prevent incidents, we really need to know more about it,” she said.

Shakeshaft’s report identifies nearly 900 citations in research-based sources, but among them she found just 14 empirical studies on the subject from the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom.

Although more research is needed, Shakeshaft told Education Wee the education community shouldn’t sit on its hands.

“Some individual districts might have changed some policies or had an in-service workshop, but really there hasn’t been any systematic response to this issue,” she said. “It isn’t as if we need to stop and wait for a study. I do believe we know enough to take some actions.”

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