WASHINGTON -- More than 4.5 million students endure sexual misconduct by employees at their schools, from inappropriate jokes to forced sex, according to a report to Congress.
The best estimate available shows nearly one in 10 children faces misbehavior ranging from unprofessional to criminal sometime between kindergarten and 12th grade, says the report by Charol Shakeshaft, a Hofstra University professor.
''Most people just don't think this can really happen," said Shakeshaft, hired by the Education Department to study the prevalence of sexual abuse in schools. ''We imagine that all teachers are like most teachers, in that they've gone into teaching to help children. Most do, but not all."
The report, required by the No Child Left Behind law and delivered to Congress yesterday, is the first to analyze research about sexual misconduct at schools.
Some educators took issue with the way the report combines sexual abuse with other behaviors, such as inappropriate jokes, in one broad category of sexual misconduct.
''Lumping harassment together with serious sexual misconduct does more harm than good by creating unjustified alarm and undermining confidence in public schools," said Michael Pons, spokesman for the National Education Association, a union of 2.7 million school employees. ''Statistically, public schools remain one of the safest places for children to be."
But the American Association of University Women, whose surveys of students were at the core of the report, stood by its research.
And Robert Shoop, a Kansas State University professor of education law and a specialist on the problem of sexual exploitation in schools, said the estimate that one in 10 children endures abuse is not high. The actual number may be larger, he said, because of underreporting of the problem.
There have been no nationally financed surveys of how common sexual misconduct is in school, one of many areas Shakeshaft suggests must be addressed. She examined existing research, finding almost 900 documents that have dealt with the topic in some way.
Among those, the best estimate of misconduct came from surveys in 2000 of students in grades eight to 11, Shakeshaft said. That research, commissioned by the AAUW Educational Foundation, found nearly 9.6 percent of students had been sexually harassed or abused by school workers. Shakeshaft reanalyzed the data and said it could be applied to the broad school population, meaning more than 4.5 million students could be affected.
''Our hope would be that schools and parents sit up and take notice," said Linda Hodge, president of the National PTA and mother of three children.
The report describes schools as places where abusers can target vulnerable and marginal students who are afraid to complain or unlikely to be believed if they did. In a particularly troubling finding, the report says that in elementary schools, the abuser is often one of the people liked most by students and trusted most by parents.
Sexual misconduct is defined in the report as physical, verbal, or visual behavior. Shakeshaft did not limit her findings to sexual abuse because, she says, that would exclude other unacceptable adult behaviors that can drive children from school and harm them for years.
''Out of the millions of teachers and millions of employees out there, you're talking about a very small number who are doing these inappropriate things," said Paul Houston, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. ''As long as we keep it in context, recognizing any kind of problem like this is always a good move."
The American Federation of Teachers took issue with the report's definition of misconduct, and the Education Department expressed reservations. Deputy Education Secretary Eugene Hickok said the findings could be considered ''insufficiently focused." But those officials did nothing to downplay the importance of the problem.
The report found teachers are the most common offenders, followed by coaches, substitute teachers, bus drivers, and teacher aides. Among those offenders, 57 percent are male and 43 percent are female. Among the victims, 56 percent are girls and 44 percent are boys.
There is no mechanism to determine how many false accusations against educators occur, the report says.