I recently attended a presentation in Malaysia called “How to Catch a Predator: Lessons Learned from Investigating Cases of Child Sexual Assault”. The speakers were agents from the US State Department Diplomatic Security Service and FBI. They tailored their discussion to heads of international schools in Asia. Here is some of what the speakers had to say.
Example Case: William (Bill) James Vahey
As an active teacher who worked at ten schools in nine different countries over the course of 40 years, Bill Vahey is suspected of having drugged and sexually abused hundreds of middle school aged boys. This happened despite having been convicted at the age of 20 for sexually molesting boys and despite there having been warning signs throughout his career. Finally, in 2014 at the precipice of being arrested for his long history of abuse, he committed suicide.
For an eye-opening, detailed account of this travesty and its relationship to international education, see Robert Booth’s article in The Guardian “How did one of the worst paedofiles in history get away with his crimes?” Many of the details in that story are consistent with the information below about child sexual predators.
Child Predator Facts and Figures
- Estimated 1-5% of a population is pedophilic, and this is consistent globally
- The inclination toward pedophilia emerges at pubescence; it is a sexual preference with as much drive as adult heterosexuality or homosexuality, meaning that it is not something that can be ‘switched off’ or redirected anymore than heterosexuality or homosexuality can, and while that may be true, pedophilia is still illegal
- >95% of child sexual predators are male, but that does not mean we should discount females
- Child sexual predators often use the ‘dark web’ (i.e., clandestine internet communication) to form communities to discuss their predation, identify vulnerable sites and facilitate each other’s activities and share media; it is important that your school does things that disincline child offenders from labelling it as an easy site for child predation
- Internet has resulted in community building of offenders and enhanced, widespread distribution of child sexual abuse materials
- Offenders may create entirely new identities and supporting documentation by fraudulently buying them in certain countries, or they may simply lie on an application about criminal history
- Offenders may do a lot of ‘voluntourism’ globally; by volunteering, they can gain access to children
Common Traits of Predators
- Antisocial in terms of disregarding social rules, as if normal rules don’t apply to them, they are willing to cross lines; not antisocial in terms of being introverted, on the contrary they may be very personable and likeable
- Any type of criminal history
- Disinhibiting behaviour, such as substance abuse
- Grooming, meaning the use of strategies over time to sway children toward sexual abuse
- Sexual deviance
- Intimacy deficits
Signs: What to look for
- Have you met or do you know their spouse/significant other?
- Is there a history of short lived romances?
- Do they follow rules?
- Do they frequently disregard or belittle policies?
- Do they have any criminal history?
- Do they show signs of remorse?
- Are they deceitful or manipulative?
- Is there substance use of abuse?
- Do they frequently show signs of denial, minimization or justification?
- Do they have an unusually high interest in childish things (e.g., video games, toys, etc.)
- Do they prefer engagement with children over peers?
- You are looking for clues of antisocial tendencies and social/intimacy deficiencies.
- Talk to as many people as you can!
- Gaining access to children, for example, through employment at schools or daycares, volunteering at youth-aimed mission groups, marriage to a single mother
- Victims chosen based on availability, desirability and vulnerability
- ‘Circle of grooming’ includes identifying a target, establishing a connection, gathering information, filling needs and exploiting vulnerabilities (for example, need for attention from an adult, desire to participate on a team), lowering child’s inhibitions to sexual contact
- Grooming methods include giving gifts or money, showing attention, taking the child or being with the child on travel, showing the victim pornography
- Getting the child to like the offender by using similar interests or values as the child; the offender may display a heightened affinity for childish toys and activities because these can be used to make connections with children
- Creating a sense in the child that he or she needs to pay back the offender for kindness or gifts
- Offenders who groom tend to have developed social skills and are adept at identifying vulnerable environments where they can appear as trustworthy, safe and charming
- Grooming goals are to establish trust with child, parents and community and to appear being ‘above reproach, a model citizen’
- Creating a perception that the offender is in a position of authority
- Creating a scenario conducive to doubting the child in the event that he or she speaks up
- Getting adults to demonstrate trust toward the offender and thereby convincing children to do the same
- Using commitment and consistency to instil a sense of trustworthiness
- Creating the message to the child that his or her parents trust the offender and that making the offender sad or upset is ‘unfriendly’—breaking down the child’s innate sense of safety and self-preservation
- Grooming can be in person or online
- Offenders will commonly have multiple victims over time
Warning Signs of Risky Adult Behaviours
- Using sexually explicit language and off-colour jokes
- Giving gifts without permission
- Using secrecy
- Showing children pornography
- Isolating children from others who might observe signs of abuse or neglect
- Always wanting to be alone with a child
- Discouraging others from being around
- Arranging to be with a child without monitoring
Reasons Why People Do Not Report
- They don’t want to cause trouble or get people upset
- They are afraid of repercussions, such as retaliation or lawsuits
- They do not want to ruin the reputation of an innocent person
- The suspected offender is in a position of authority
- Children think it is adults’ role to report to authorities
- They may want to wait and see if something else happens, investigate more, find more proof; however, investigating reports is the responsibility of child protection authorities (not school officials). In many cases of child maltreatment, adults suspected something was wrong but waited until it was too late. When adults report, it relieves children of that difficult responsibility.
Recommendations for Schools
- Recognize that schools are at risk.
- Educate yourself by reading about this topic; several resources are listed at the end of this article.
- The head of school should take ownership of this issue get advanced training.
- All staff should receive training.
- Educate the school community. Community support is the key!
- Have a policy, process for documenting and reporting, and a process for termination.
- Create ‘concentric circles of security’ where all members keep an eye out for offenders:
- Outer Ring (off campus) – school sponsored activities, volunteers, tutors, outside coaches, contracted personnel (bus drivers, special programs)
- Middle Ring (campus) – walls, fences, gates, barriers, CCTV cameras, security personnel, strict access protocols, identification, visitor logs
- Inner Ring (classroom/students) – teachers, security staff, counsellors, janitorial staff, coaches, anyone with unaccompanied access to children
- Put a notice on your school website, “[School name] actively collaborates with local and international authorities to detect and report suspected child offenders.” And make sure it’s true.
- Contact and develop a relationship with your local US State Department Diplomatic Security Services Regional Security Officer (RSO). They are in every country. Even if the matter does not concern American citizens directly, which is an RSO’s priority, the RSO can redirect you to other agencies that you may not know about.
- Be willing to contact consulates and embassies in your area to inquire about individuals whom you suspect may be child offenders.
- Record instances of concern to see if a pattern emerges.
- Pay attention to kids when they tell you that they get an uncomfortable feeling from an adult.
- Implement an age-appropriate curriculum to teach students about these things, for example, an adult should never ask you to keep a secret, an adult should never use sexual language, show you pornography or touch you sexually; include a discussion about the Internet.
- Monitor all programs, create a sense of transparency in all physical locations (whether onsite or off, e.g. field trip); ensure proper cross-supervision among adults; provide extra monitoring during free time and non-structured activities, especially overnight trips or camps
- Seize a device with child pornography, immediately turn it off, remove the battery if possible, put it in a lead-lined safe or wrap it in tinfoil to prevent content from being deleted through the cloud, do not give it to your IT but hand it over to authorities and forensic IT professionals.
- Do not protect suspected offenders.
- Protecting the reputation of the school is secondary to protecting children.
- Form a multi-disciplinary team to respond to allegations of child sexual abuse in your school community. Members may include private consultants, faculty/staff, medical personnel, local and international law enforcement, non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), community support, foreign missions…
- Require criminal background checks. Conduct in-depth reference checks of educators, staff and volunteers. It is recommended to do 10-15 reference checks that include Skype, watching people’s responses to certain questions; look for odd or vague responses, such as pauses or “Well… he’s a good guy.” Check the two or three reference provided by the applicant, and ask each reference for two or three more references, expanding the circle. Most recruitment agencies have inadequate background checks because they tend to only look at information that is openly available on the Internet, and switching countries is a problem in terms of getting police record checks. Additionally, offenders may have created new identities and supporting documentation. Thorough reference checks may be one of the best strategies available to hiring committees to mitigate this.
- Gathering information (investigation)
- First phone call that you make? Local law enforcement? Know your local laws.
- How do you communicate with parents and staff?
- Who will coordinate/manage the crisis?
- Post incident response: International Task Force for Child Protection (ITFCP), trauma counsellors, information plan, International Center for Missing and Exploited Children (ICMEC)
Special thank you to the US State Department, FBI agents and other authorities who actively work to catch child predators throughout the world and who try to educate international schools on what to look for and what to do concerning these heinous crimes.
For more information, see the website ICMEC: Education Portal. In particular, it is worth reading the following two documents:
- Managing Allegations of Child Abuse by Educators and Other Adults: Protocol for international schools
- Summary discussing the launch of the above protocol
- Curriculum resources