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ANM News Gender Insight

Why Sexual abuse cases with teachers and mentors as culprits are not uncommon!!

Dr Neelam Batra Verma

American Association of University Women in a survey conducted in 2000 on 2064 students, found that 81% or 8 out of 10 students experience sexual harassment in school. 83% of these students were girls while 78% were boys. School employees themselves have not been spared either as 42% of them harassed each other. Isn’t that weird?

While the decorated Indian wrestlers continue their sit-in protests against Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) president Brijbhushan Sharan Singh, for alleged sexual harassment charges with no relief even after an FIR, that includes a complaint from a minor wrestler, there were reports of sexual offence charges on Indo-Canadian teacher from British Columbia recently. The teacher, Bhupinder Singh Sonu, from Langley City, British Columbia, was charged early this month with sexual interference and sexual exploitation, concerning three different complainants, from parents of students of the local Khalsa School.

Surprisingly Brijbhushan Sharan Singh who is yet to resign from his coveted post and Sonu, who is out on bail, are not isolated incidents. Another Indo-Canadian, Satnam Rayat of Mississauga Ontario was charged in 2016, with sexually touching a 9-year-old student. Rayat ran a Karate studio teaching little children. He was arrested and an investigation had taken place. The sexual assault happened over a couple of months before a little girl complained and the case went to court.

What is common between the charges made by Indian Olympians on their federation president, the charges made on British Columbian teacher Sonu, and Rayat, the karate teacher is that these are the serious charges of alleged sexual offences where the victims have either been the student’s or trainees, many of whom are minors and the culprits, the high and mighty sitting on some position of the power.

Brijbhushan Sharan Singh, the defiant, WFI president, Sonu or Rayat are not the stray cases, allegedly happening in India or by people of Indian origin on a foreign land, cases of exploitation of students by teachers or coaches, are reported across the world.

There are examples abound. While Olympic medal-winning Indian wrestlers like Sakshi Malik and Bajrang Punia, Commonwealth Games women’s gold winner Vinesh Phogat and others have been camping on the streets of Delhi seeking justice against the head of WFI, Brijbhushan Sharan Singh, a parliamentarian who they have accused of repeatedly sexually assaulting the young players for years, there are many such incidents happening across the world which largely go unnoticed and unreported.

In Canada alone, in the last 20 years, as many as 222 coaches have been convicted of sexual offences based on complaints filed by as many as 600 victims in amateur sports. Surprisingly all the victims were under 18 years of age. There are still 34 or more cases pending in court. According to a report by CBC, coaches from 36 different sports were charged and convicted of sexual offences in Canada.

The most comprehensive study about the cases of sexual exploitation by teachers and coaches in Canada took place between 1997 and 2017 for K-12 students. The results were not only shocking but also very concerning. This report by Canada Centre for Child Protection, which was released in 2018, concluded that as many as 714 employees or former employees were responsible for 750 sexual offences cases against 1272 children. Certified teachers formed 86% of the offenders while other employees like educational assistants, volunteers, lunch monitors, bus drivers or even secretaries too took advantage when they could. The report also found that 75% of the victims were female while 25% male.

American Association of University Women in a survey conducted in 2000 on 2064 students, found that 81% or 8 out of 10 students experience sexual harassment in school. 83% of these students were girls while 78% were boys. School employees themselves have not been spared either as 42% of them harassed each other. Isn’t that weird?

Why high and mighty indulge in sexual offences?

Any answer to why people in power misuse their capacity against the vulnerable children and students or wards, they are supposed to be protecting? The reasons could not be one but many.

According to researchers, some teachers may abuse their power by exerting control over their students, which can take various forms of abuse. Children become vulnerable when they are outside of their comfort zone or when they are left alone with their teachers by their parents, who obviously trust the teachers to be the well-wishers of their children.

Another reason could be the poor mental and psychological health of the teachers contributing to their abusive behaviour towards their wards. Lack of screening and monitoring of abusive behaviour of the trainers, mentors and teachers usually goes unnoticed. In the absence of a mechanism of background checks about the mental illnesses, trauma or other personality disorders of the teachers, such cases largely remain unnoticed resulting in behaviour issues towards students.

The other reason could be the lack of proper teachers’ training. Teachers who are not adequately trained or supported may struggle to manage their classrooms more effectively, which might lead to frustration. In a study by the US Department of Justice on Sexual Abuse by Educators and School Staff found that educators who sexually abuse students are often the most popular teachers, who work with students
individually or/and in extracurricular activities. “Official statistics indicate that the majority of abusers are male and their victims are female; however, surveys of students show a much higher percentage of female abusers and male victims. Abusers typically target students who are deemed to be in need of attention and emotional bonding from an adult.”

A report by the US Department of Education in 2004 looked at sexual misconduct in classrooms and found that approximately 10% of students experienced sexual misconduct by a teacher at some time during their K-12 school experience. This report may be old yet its findings are relevant today.

There are various techniques offenders may use – sometimes threats, bribes or gifts to groom their victims. Many a time children don’t report either out of shame or they feel they themselves are responsible for their own trauma. But most of the time, either children don’t have the vocabulary or don’t understand that what they are going through is not normal and accept their plight till they grow up to realise that they have been victims.

Cover-up of Sexual offence by authorities

There has been an apparent tendency to cover up by the authorities. According to the reports, in Sonu’s case, Khalsa School is bent on covering the issue without providing any support to the children. Some students had reported the incident to other teachers, but instead of taking any action, the children themselves were embarrassed in front of their classes by those teachers. This incident confirms the fact that even when the teachers themselves are aware of their colleagues’ misconduct, they look the other way. It was on February 14, 2023, that a victim came forward and when the parent informed the principal, Sonu was dismissed from school but the police were not informed.

The fact that the community still is in denial about Bhupinder Singh Sonu is evident from the fact that a local gurdwara allowed him to take the public stage, that too around children, thus violating a probation order. According to the probation order, he is not allowed to be around children under 16 years of age in a park, theatre or community centre. Yet, he was allowed to take the stage in the gurdwara.

It is not uncommon to come across incidents where institutions try to silence the victims through bribes. Hockey Canada is one big example when a woman claimed to have been sexually assaulted by eight players in 2018 and sought $3.55 million in damages from Hockey Canada. The latter quietly settled the lawsuit out of court. As a result, the federal government slashed funding and some sponsors even withdrew from the events. However, the government recently decided to restore funding recently but with strict conditions.

Protecting children against sexual violence

It is important for educational institutions to have a written code of conduct for students, teachers and parents so everyone is aware of the possible plan of action by authorities in case such incidents are reported. Most schools and institutions do have policies in place to handle such cases of misconduct but awareness, and fear of social stigma holds the victims from coming forward against sexual abuse. Schools and parents should hold open discussions and apprise the students of the road map. If not, our children will continue to be abused and when they grow older, might turn into abusers themselves, as such incidents leave behind a lifetime of trauma, and mental and psychological issues.

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