What's to Blame When Children Sexually Offend?

A dozen boys between 6 and 8 years old allegedly pinned down an 8-year-old classmate during recess at their St. Louis elementary school, and kissed and fondled her, according to published reports.

The incident shocked school officials and an entire community.

"I am personally appalled," said Creg E. Williams, superintendent of the St. Louis Public School District. "I am outraged that young boys would have such a thing in their minds at 6 or 7 years old. I think I spent a little bit of time in shock myself."

The alleged attack in May led to the suspension of 10 boys and in-school suspension of two, and all will be transferred to different schools next year, Williams said, adding that the victim was OK physically.

"Emotionally, there are some scars, and we've got to help her and the family," he said. "There's some emotional trauma that has taken place."

As the district moves forward, questions remain about what could lead such young children to commit such a violent act and how schools should prevent similar incidents. Experts say that such episodes occur more than most people realize and that often a combination of societal factors and childhood trauma precede abuse.

"It never ceases to be a shocking thing when you hear about it, but unfortunately it's not unheard of," said Maurice Elias, a professor of psychology who studies school and child issues at Rutgers University and is director of the Rutgers Social-Emotional Learning Lab. "It's one of many examples of inappropriate sexualized behavior on the part of young children."

Too Much Adult Content?

Williams said the incident was not the first time young students in his district had been involved in surprising conduct.

"I think overall I'm seeing an increase in the poor behavior of young children," he said. "It's not all sexual but just disciplinary infractions. … [They are] a little bit more aggressive, a little bit more in tune to current-day violence, which is really what's frightening to me. They see a lot in their homes, they see a lot on television, and they hear a lot in music, not to mention some of the video games they play."

Elias said circumstances at home were a factor.

"We see a lot of this, unfortunately, in cases of child abuse and sometimes child neglect, and in those circumstances you come to learn that children are exposed to movies and adult behaviors and conversations that they really have no understanding of."

Adult media also have an impact on some children.

"For many kids, they're seeing movies and things on the Internet and hearing conversations of a sexual nature that leave them curious," he said. "And so that some small group of kids would choose to try something like this is not shocking.

"There are many, many tens of thousands of kids exposed to these same things and they don't go ahead and do that. … But we have to expect that there are going to be strong forces in the child's environment that are giving strong moral messages."

Trauma Is a Factor

Kathryn Seifert, a psychologist and CEO of Eastern Shore Psychological Services who has researched the topic for 15 years, said that sexual offenses might not be happening more but that they were not as hidden as they once were.

"We're more willing to talk about it, so I think more of it is coming to our attention than it has in the past," she said, adding, "In looking at the statistics, while violent offending really has come down among juveniles, sexual offending in some subgroups has gone up."

According to "Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2006 National Report" by the National Center for Juvenile Justice and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, between 1980 and 2003 the proportion of juvenile arrests involving youth younger than 13 increased to 18 percent for sex offenses.

"My thought, having worked in this area for a long time, is if you see a child who has sexual behavior problems or sexually offends under the age of 12, you're almost always looking at a child with a trauma history of some kind -- abuse, neglect, domestic violence," Seifert said, adding, "If he glanced in a room and saw pornography for five minutes, it may not be enough of a risk factor. But if you add up the other factors, the risk goes up."

Seifert said there usually were signs of a problem, such as sexual harassment, inappropriate, disrespectful or sexual words and gestures being said from one child to another child, or bullying of another child.

"Any time you see one child trying to control or bully, you want to nip that in the bud," she said. "I'm not saying it will turn into sexual offending, but that's a sign that the child does not understand how important it is to have empathy for the other child's feelings."

What to Do?

In the St. Louis incident, Williams said many of the boys could not detail exactly what happened.

"It definitely wasn't a planned attack," he said.

Bob Shoop, a professor of educational law at Kansas State University who has served as an expert witness in 45 cases, said sometimes a "wolf-pack mentality" overcame kids in these situations.

"Often times, no individual child would do an aberrant behavior by themselves," Shoop said, "but … the narcotic of peer pressure is such that if they're not specifically taught right and wrong behaviors, they will often go along with the group."

Seifert said all of the children involved should be evaluated.

"There are some kids who are just followers, but some risk factors are in there for them to follow such a deed that they all know is wrong," she said. "All of those children need to be looked at in terms of what types of services [they might need]."

Shoop said it was important for schools to have enough supervision on the playground, though mistakes happen.

"Schools have a legal duty to have a safe learning environment. The standard of care is adequate supervision at all times," he said, adding, "The vast majority of teachers are competent, capable, caring people, but that doesn't mean that they just can be looking the wrong way."

It also is imperative for schools to teach children about sexual offenses, even at young ages, he said, adding, "Every school district has to have a comprehensive policy that specifically describes inappropriate behaviors and tells people why they shouldn't do certain things, what the consequences are."

"Training is really critical," he added. "There should be clear training from first grade on -- not just 'good touch/bad touch.' … No one has the right to touch you in a sexual manner, harass you, humiliate you in this setting."

Williams said that such a program was in the works in the St. Louis schools.

"We started talking with our social workers and our nurses about how we bring those types of programs down to that lower-age level," he said.

He also hopes to involve the boys' families and the community in general in addressing the problem.

"We've got to start with the parents," he said. "From their point of view, these were good children."