Thousands of elementary and secondary school students are disciplined or treated in the United States each year for sexual aggression. While sexual violence has made headlines on college campuses that scrutiny has not extended to adolescents and younger children.
WHAT KID WOULD SEXUALLY ASSAULT A PEER?
Offenders cannot be typecast. Therapists who have spent careers assessing thousands of children describe a tremendous diversity of personalities and personal circumstances. Offenders can be wealthy or poor, outgoing or reclusive, charismatic or awkward. They may attend schools in inner cities, outer suburbs or small towns. Most, though not all, are boys.
WAIT, IT COULD BE ANYONE?
There can be warning signs. Experts agree that a broader anti-social streak can suggest a higher risk of offending. Social isolation can be a clue, though popular kids who don’t respect others’ personal boundaries also can cause concern, especially if their social circle ties acceptance to sex. Fantasies about forceful sex elevate worries. Researchers are developing systems to assess who might offend again once caught. One approach is to use artificial intelligence. Early results suggest computer algorithms might identify risk patterns in detailed offender data that humans cannot discern, according to KiDeuk Kim, the researcher heading the project at the Washington-based Urban Institute think tank.
WILL KIDS JUST KEEP DOING IT?
Multiple academic studies have suggested that only about 5 percent of juveniles who are arrested on sex-related charges will be arrested again for a similar reason. Last summer, Michael Caldwell, a lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has treated hundreds of juvenile offenders, reported that the re-arrest rate had fallen in recent years. There is no clear explanation why, though the overall violent crime has fallen, too.
WHY WOULD A STUDENT DO THIS?
Motivations depend on the person and situation. Because children are constantly developing, age is an important factor. A high school student might become forceful if a consensual encounter stops short of what he expected. Roiled by hormones, a middle schooler could seize a moment of unsupervised opportunity. Grade school students might be re-enacting harm someone else did to them, though experts say being sexually abused doesn’t necessarily mean someone will become an abuser. At the same time, broader life instability appears to play a role. That could mean a violent home life, absentee parents or other problems.
DOES PORNOGRAPHY PLAY A ROLE?
The limited research is inconclusive. Some of the strongest evidence of a link came in a 2011 paper that surveyed more than 1,000 children between 10 and 15 years old. The study made an important distinction between kinds of pornography, noted its lead author, Michele Ybarra of the Center for Innovative Public Health Research. Children exposed to violent X-rated material were six times more likely to self-report that they had been sexually aggressive than children with no such exposure, the study concluded.
Pritchard reported from Los Angeles. Contact him at https://twitter.com/lalanewsman .
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