The Mighty Logo

What is ‘Passing the Trash’? 5 Ways for Parents to Help Protect Children.

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

“Passing the Trash” is a euphemism for the practice of schools brushing allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct against teachers or school employees under a rug. Often these individuals are offered agreements in exchange for their resignation stating that the school will not inform future employers as to the allegations. This enables repeat offenders to hop from school to school unchecked and able to offend again. It’s a vicious cycle that has been well documented in districts throughout the country.

• What is PTSD?

New light has been shed upon the issue in a new documentary on Hulu entitled “Keep This Between Us” by filmmaker Cheryl Nichols. In the four part series she recounts her own experience with her theater professor allegedly grooming her for a sexual relationship in high school. Her exploration reveals a systemic problem that perpetuates victim blaming while enabling would be abusers to continue preying on vulnerable students, emboldened by the inherent power differential that makes up the student teacher relationship.

While the federal government attempted to address this issue in legislation passed in 2015, the majority of states in the country have yet to adopt any meaningful strategies for implementing change that would put the safety of children above the rights of abusers to privacy. What this means for parents is that the onus is upon them to protect their own children. According to NPR, the problem is more widespread than one would think, with 10 percent of students surveyed in K-12 schools reporting some kind of sexual misconduct by school staff — of these 38 percent were elementary school aged and 56 percent high school aged. And the problem disproportionately affects minorities and children from underprivileged communities.

So what can parents do to keep their children safe at school? The solutions are not that dissimilar to those for preventing child sexual abuse in general. The first line of defense is for parents to recognize that the idea of “stranger danger,” while a possibility, isn’t where the vast majority of abuse occurs. According to RAINN, 93 percent of victims under the age of 18 knew their abusers — a sobering statistic. So education and advocacy has to begin at home and early in a child’s development.

1. Early childhood education on bodily autonomy.

It isn’t necessary to talk about sex to begin addressing this topic. In fact, the primary subjects that should be addressed involve using anatomically correct body part names, identifying safe people to tell if someone touched them inappropriately, the difference between secrets versus surprises and — perhaps most importantly — the difference between “safe” versus “unsafe” touch. Not using “good” versus “bad” eliminates the future stigmatization of intimacy while reinforcing that nobody should touch nor should they themselves touch any body parts that are covered by a bathing suit, including a medical professional, without a parent present and the consent of the child.

2. Continuing age appropriate sex education.

Unfortunately sex education is both irregular and inconsistent in school. Many schools opt for abstinence-only approaches withholding meaningful education about consent, contraception, and bodily development. And few focus on a more integrative approach to discussing relationships including things like boundaries, power dynamics, and systemic issues relating to discrimination based upon gender and sexuality. Parents should supplement these discussions and have them often. If you are ashamed to discuss these issues with your children, who else would you trust to do it?

3. Be proactively involved in the establishment of accountability.

Children spend the majority of their day in school. Know what systems are in place at your children’s school to protect them, particularly in activities involving sports or offsite field trips. Are multiple teachers present? Are parental chaperones required? Any activity that your child is involved in should have checks and balances. And if possible, you might consider volunteering and have an open conversation with the teacher or staff involved with the program about their policies regarding student safety. If they can’t provide one, don’t settle. Parents have the right to know how safe their children are away from home.

4. Consider using a parental control app.

I personally hate the title “parental control” because it infers a lack of privacy or individuating that is important for a child’s development, however, there are sensible and necessary ways of monitoring what content children have access to. This can be done via the phone itself or by downloading an app like Bark, which has specialized algorithms to help parents identify potential bullying, sexual content or sexual predators.

It would also be prudent to discuss who is safe to share private information with — such as address, phone number, or social media profiles. This one is where teachers can be murky. Teachers are encouraged and perhaps need to have access to text or email children, particularly in this post-COVID remote learning world. However, this does make it easier for predatory teachers to gain access to vulnerable students. It is important for children to understand what is and is not appropriate to discuss with a teacher, reiterating that a child should never be sharing sexual content or explicit photos with anyone, especially a teacher.

5. If a child tells you something happened — believe them.

And, report the situation to school authorities. Children are protected by law from sexual violence by school employees under Title IX. If you report an alleged violation, authorities must do a thorough investigation to comply with federal law. If they do not, take the allegations to law enforcement. There is no reason for allegations to be dismissed without due process.

Case in point, in 2016 a jury awarded a student a $6 million settlement in a civil lawsuit against the Miami-Dade school board for failing to appropriately act upon repeated allegations the student made against a teacher. While the case has yet to be heard in criminal court, it does set the precedent for future victims to leverage their rights in insisting their claims be heard and believed.

I know all of this may appear to be overwhelming, particularly for parents who are trying to juggle multiple children while working full time just to make ends meet. It also isn’t lost on me that many children may rely upon a trusted teacher to report incidences of abuse within their own homes. That goes beyond the scope of this article, but I felt it important to acknowledge these realities.

It would be ideal if we lived in a world where all grown ups, particularly those who go into a profession to serve and protect children, were actually invested in insuring their safety and development. Unfortunately we don’t and our systems of bureaucracy from school boards to state and federal governments have yet to take this issue seriously. Therefore parents need to be armed with the knowledge and tools to best help them navigate not only the complex interconnected world we live in but what their rights — and more importantly their children’s rights — are in the event that they are violated.

Getty image by SolStock

Originally published: September 21, 2022
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home