In the United States, child sexual abuse is reported almost 90,000 times a year, but the number of unreported incidents of abuse is far greater. Many children are afraid to tell anyone what has happened, according to the 2000 Bureau of Justice Statistics. Dr. Lane Fischer of the Department of Counseling Psychology and Special Education of the McKay School and his Affinity research team are researching ways to prevent sex offenders from working with children in schools.

Fischer began researching the psychometric properties of existing tests of sexual interests in 1997. He and the students on his research team have conducted seven studies using a new instrument, the Affinity, which may be useful in the screening and selection of elementary school teachers. The current Affinity team consists of doctoral students Joy Wiechmann, Heather Stephenson, Rod Veas, and Sierra Baird with undergraduates Zach Featherstone and Nick Norman.

Some research suggests that between kindergarten and high school graduation 25 percent of students experience a hands-on sexual offense by a teacher, coach, or administrator in schools. A more conservative estimate from research is seven percent.

“That is still seven out of 100,” said Fischer. “That’s a lot.” According to Fischer, many sex offenders have multiple victims, so it is difficult to know how many teachers, coaches, or administrators in the schools are actually offending against children.

The goal of Fischer’s team is to develop techniques to screen those applying for employment in elementary and residential schools for the potential to offend against children. If research can validate the patterns that indicate that a prospective employee is, or has the potential to become a sex offender, school districts may be able to prevent that person from having access to children in schools. “We are trying to help—we are not on a witch hunt,” said Fischer.

The team may shortly conduct research in the Colorado and Utah Departments of Corrections to test known sex offenders and pedophiles. This may validate Fischer’s norm-referenced approach to screening and diagnosis of sex offenders.

“We face a significant challenge to protect the civil rights of prospective employees while at the same time protecting the safety of children in the schools,” said Fischer. “It is undetermined at this point whether we can actually accomplish our goal, but when we consider the amount of suffering incurred by sexual offenses, we are motivated to continue our work.”

The following facts about sexual abuse of children are given by The National Center for Victims of Crime:

  • A sex offender can be described as having unrestrained sexuality that is not about relationships.
  • In contrast, pedophiles have an exclusive attraction to little children and build a relationship with them.
  • It is estimated that one in four girls and one in six boys will have experienced sexual abuse while younger than 18 years.
  • Most children are abused by someone they know and trust; 50 percent of offenders were acquaintances or friends.
  • Considering all sexual assaults reported, 67 percent of victims are under the age of 18 years.