Child Sex Trafficking in Higher Education

Child Sex Trafficking in Higher Education

Child Sex Trafficking in Higher Education


Using a pragmatic exploratory sequential mixed methods design in data collection and analysis (QUAL quan), this study analyzes 223 child sex trafficking investigations, arrests, and/or prosecutions within the United States (U.S.) higher education workforce. Despite growing awareness of the crime, research on child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) is surprisingly scant with a near total absence of perpetrator data. This is the first examination of the crime in U.S. tertiary education. Policy recommendations, guided by the research results, contribute to progress in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) focused on anti-trafficking: Gender Equality (SDG 5.2) and Peace, Justice & Strong Institutions (SDG 16.2).


“Let unwelcome truths be told.” (Farmer, 2004)
“FBI’s Assistant Director of Criminal Investigation Joseph Campbell, says child sex trafficking and pedophilia have reached epidemic levels.” (“Human Trafficking,” 2015)

When Robert Beattie, Family and Community Medicine Department Chair, University of North Dakota, was arrested on child pornography charges The Dakota Student asked, “We can’t help but wonder if this type of thing is common in other schools around the nation?” (“Integrity,” 2015).1 Using a mixed methods research design (MMR), this question is explored through analysis of 223 child sex trafficking investigations, arrests, and prosecutions of U.S. higher education employees and institutional responses to these cases.2 Although there is increased awareness of child trafficking in America, research on child sexual exploitation material (CSEM) is limited by a near total lack of perpetrator data.3 Refined research, such as analysis of arrests/prosecutions per occupation or other social categories, has not been conducted (Erooga et al., 2019).4 This study is the first to consider CSEM investigations, arrests, and prosecutions within the U.S. higher education profession.5

While higher education is not typically associated with child sex trafficking, a simple web-search reveals a plethora of employees charged with the offense. From an Assistant Dean at the University of Virginia prosecuted for trading in infant rape to an award-winning Allegheny College professor prosecuted for possession of over 500,000 CSEM videos/images, child sex trafficking-related arrests/ prosecutions of higher education employees appear widespread (Stuart, 2014; “Allegheny College,” 2014). Additionally, the crime is frequently reported to have occurred in the workplace heightening the offense and constituting serious safety and liability concerns for universities and colleges, particularly those that are publicly funded (Chipp, 2019).

Tertiary education is a prestigious profession wielding unique power to impact public policy and influence young, impressionable populations. As of 2020, there were some 3,994 U.S. postsecondary institutions employing an estimated 3.4 million faculty and staff of which some 1.3 million are on faculty status (US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, 2021c; Grinder, 2021; Moody, 2019; Snyder et al., 2019). Some sixty percent of these institutions are private and not subject to public disclosure laws, while public institutions, primary to postsecondary, employ more U.S. government personnel than any other profession; comprising approximately half of all state and local workforces (McFarland et al., 2019; Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020; Terence, 2015; Grundy, 2020).6 This significant public sector aspect intensifies the necessity for enhanced oversight and accountability in the education sector. The considerable influence of the higher education profession, combined with a bulk of government employees, renders this sector an important sphere in which to examine CSEM perpetrator data.

In 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act expanded the definition of human trafficking to include child pornography (United States Government (USG)). In 2015, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act modified the U.S. Criminal Code, Title 18(f) Transportation of Minors, to further clarify “producers of child pornography are human traffickers” (Motivans & Snyder, 2018, p. 2). This research relies on U.S. Criminal Code definitions and thus understands those engaged in producing, distributing and receiving CSEM images, videos and live-streams are child traffickers. Meanwhile, there is a global movement to eliminate the phrase “child pornography,” as this term remains active in the U.S. legal system it is used in this research. To the extent possible “CSEM,” “child sex trafficking,” “child rape” and “child sex abuse” are alternatively applied.

The U.S. legal system is heavily dependent upon plea bargains to reduce backlogs and avoid costly jury trials. Prosecutors may offer defendants the opportunity to plead guilty to tampering with evidence or unauthorized use of property, for example, in exchange for dropping CSEM charges. Some cases examined in this research were, ultimately, not prosecuted on child sex trafficking charges. If probable cause was apparent in an investigation, arrest warrant or original criminal complaint, even if charges were never brought or dropped by prosecutors, the case is included in the data set. While there have been many CSEM arrests/prosecutions of students, unless the student was also an employee, students are not included in this study (Taibbi, 2014; Yoffe, 2017).


The scope of the crime in the United States is staggering. As early as 1999, the Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) reported 40% of global CSEM was hosted on U.S. internet servers. By 2006, IWF estimated 54% of all CSEM websites were located in America (IWF, 2006). In 2013, European police (Europol) reported that nearly half of all CSEM servers were based in the U.S. (Gallagher, 2013; Gilbert, 2013; Europol, 2013). From 2007 to 2013, the U.S.-based National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) reported a 5,000% CSEM increase, estimating 75% of the children were under twelve-years-old, and 10% were infants and toddlers (Beauchere, 2015; Mulrine, 2015). By 2015, Europol cited dramatic increases in U.S.-based sites, from 516 sites in 2013, to 2,617 sites two years later.

In 2017, IWF was removing 1,000 web pages weekly with 69% of the children under ten-years- old (Europol, 2015; Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), 2017).7 The Canadian Center for Child Protection’s Project Arachnid processed, in 2017, over 230 million web pages with over 40,000 unique images of child sex abuse. Anti-Slavery Australia reported, in May 2017, that CSEM was a “crime epidemic” with images/videos depicting “highly depraved acts of sexual violence and torture” against “young children” (“Live-streamed,” 2017). By 2018, over 45 million CSEM images/videos were estimated to be circulating on the internet. The New York Times published, in 2019, a groundbreaking series noting, “twenty years ago, the online images were a problem; 10 years ago, an epidemic. Now, the crisis is at a breaking point” (Keller & Dance, 2019). At the start of 2020, IWF detailed “a record amount of criminal material online” calling CSEM a “shocking . . . epidemic” (Internet Watch Foundation (IWF), 2020).

Despite extensive evidence of the crime’s magnitude, detailed perpetrator data of all U.S. child sex trafficking arrests/prosecutions has never been collected.8 At local/state levels, there are no consolidated arrest/prosecution data available and after 2015, comprehensive federal CSEM crime data appear non-existent (US Federal Bureau of Investigations, 2015). In 2018, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reported that federal child sex trafficking referrals had increased 82% from 2011 to 2015, but provided little analysis and no detailed data on the escalation (Motivans & Snyder, 2018). The most recent federal CSEM crime data, with any detail, are from 2004 to 2013, citing 37,105 perpetrators, overwhelmingly white men, referred for federal prosecution (Adams & Flynn, 2017). Beyond basic race and gender demographics, little else is known about these federal arrests and prosecution referrals.

Who are these 37,105 federally referred perpetrators? What are their social categories? Did they use professional positions and/or workplaces to engage in the crime? If so, how did their employer handle subsequent arrests and prosecutions? What is the scale of CSEM crime in the American workplace? Do certain professions, such as pediatric medicine or special needs education, with access to vulnerable children, disproportionately attract predators? These questions, and many more, are still unanswered. As Erooga et al. (2019) note, “there is virtually no literature on child sexual abuse committed by ‘powerful perpetrators’ who use position, reputation, wealth and/or power, to become influential members of their organisation.”9

Even with increased public attention on sexual assault and harassment by and of university and college students, there are no collected data on child sex crimes committed by higher education employees (Dargis, 2015; Krakauer, 2015). Neither the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) nor the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) maintains public repositories.10 State-level departments of education and higher education agencies have not published CSEM arrests/prosecution data. Nonprofits, such as the American Association of University Professors, American Association of University Women or the American Federation of Teachers, have not issued research on CSEM violations in higher education. While the Clery Act requires reporting on sex offenses (rape, fondling, incest and statutory rape), CSEM offenses are not included (Jeanne Clery, 2019). Insurance companies do require detailed information on how institutions manage accusations/reports of child sex abuse by employees, but this data has not been made public (United Educators Insurance, 2019).

Although there is a lack of CSEM crime data within tertiary education, research has been conducted on child sex abuse by primary and secondary educators. Dr. Charol Shakeshaft, a leading expert on educator sex abuse, estimated “the physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests” (Profita, 2006). In 2002, DOE estimated that up to 10% of all secondary public-school students had been sexually abused by an employee (Palmer, 2012). In 2004, DOE released Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature citing an astounding number of primary/secondary teachers arrested for child sex abuse (U.S. DOE, 2004). The U.S. Government Accountability Office issued, in 2014, a report documenting the failure of public schools to protect children from sex abuse by staff and teachers (Adams, 2014). In 2016, The Boston Globe published Private Schools, Painful Secrets detailing extensive sex abuse by private secondary school employees in New England (Private Schools, Painful Secrets, 2016).

Employment in education is porous with predators moving among primary, secondary and tertiary sectors. In 2016, in a year-long investigation, USA Today detailed how predators secured employment in higher education despite revoked primary/secondary teaching certifications. The federal ban on secrecy deals in education, called “passing the trash,” is routinely ignored. Crimes are hidden. Teachers are given “hush money” to quietly resign and obtain employment elsewhere. In addition, the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification is voluntary, and there is no national decertification process for post-secondary education employees (Reilly & Kelly, 2016).

Understanding employment across the education profession is fluid, and considering primary/ secondary education employee child sex abuse data as a benchmark, it is reasonable to consider 223 arrests/prosecutions examined in this study a small sample of a likely widespread and undocumented trend in tertiary education.

Research Objective

This research seeks to answer The Dakota Student question – are arrests of higher education employees on child sex trafficking charges common in America, with “common” defined by Merriam- Webster (2021) as known to the community, occurring or appearing frequently, widespread or general, and, if so, are there consistent elements when employees are charged/prosecuted with the offense? The study also intends to offer an analytical framework for enhanced understanding of predatory behavior, CSEM crimes and institutional reactions with the aim of contributing to improved public policy.

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