Signs and Symptoms

All students, regardless of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, age, or other identities can be victims of sexual misconduct and abuse. Misconduct and abuse can occur anywhere, but it is important to note that 93% of survivors/victims of sexual abuse are abused by trusted individuals in their life ( Educators and school staff members have unique opportunities to identify when students have been harmed, regardless of where the harm takes place. We at Learning Courage believe that knowing the signs and symptoms of sexual misconduct and abuse is only part of being an engaged member of the community. Knowing these signs will enable you to know what to look for. In many ways, educators are the first line of defense in protecting students. You will notice that we use statistics and content from other experts within our field. We do this to recognize the excellent work of our peers, particularly in areas outside of our core focus.

As stated in Learning Courage’s Best Practices Regarding Policies and Procedures: Schools should be specific about: 

  1. Who individuals can go to if they are concerned about misconduct
  2. What your commitment is to your community, what resources are available to victims/survivors both on and off-campus 
  3. How you can support them 

When a victim/survivor says they have been abused. it is an adult’s role to believe them and initiate the school’s process for support and investigation while complying with mandatory reporting laws. Victims/survivors may show a multitude of different signs and symptoms of sexual abuse.

Part of building a culture of safety and support around issues of sexual misconduct and abuse is ensuring that the community knows and understands the signs and symptoms of abuse. These can be shared and communicated in many ways such as through faculty meetings, school assemblies, handbooks, the school’s website, posters hung about your campus, outside speakers, modules in curriculum, etc. For these programs to be effective, your school should consider ways to inform your community. The primary attention should be placed on current students, faculty, and staff, although it’s also beneficial to share this information with parents and alumni as well.

Methods for Informing Your Community on Signs and Symptoms of Sexual Abuse 

  • Educating during employee meetings and school assemblies 
  • Utilizing advisor programs
  • Integrating into the health curriculum 
  • Designating training for school nurses/physicians 
  • Posting visual aids around campus/buildings (i.e. posters, pamphlets, etc.) 
  • Including in your school handbook and on your school website 

At Learning Courage we believe that informing your community on the signs and symptoms is only one part of the school’s commitment to reducing sexual misconduct and abuse. Best practices, we believe, are wide-ranging and follow a holistic and survivor-centered approach. 

Best practices for adults in the school community: 

  • Establish a list of clear signs and symptoms of sexual abuse in the employee handbook.
  • Provide annual training for adults on how to spot signs and symptoms within your  community. 
  • Ensure that all adults are aware of how to care for a student who comes to you reporting abuse either as a survivor or as a witness, with more comprehensive training for those most likely to receive reports. 
    • Conduct annual boundary training for adults to instill clear rules and guidelines to abide by as well as watch out for.
  • Establish clear guidelines and rules on remote learning oversight. 
  • Establish clear expectations for social media and messaging use. 
    • Both while at school and also with alumni of the school (i.e. an elementary school teacher shouldn’t be privately messaging an alum or non-alum if s/he is in middle school, best practice is to have a 5 year period from graduating high school or twenty-one years old.)

Best practices for educating the school community on signs and symptoms:

  • Include a written statement of your school’s desire to maintain a safe community, and ask for students’ help. 
  • Include signs and symptoms of sexual abuse in your student handbook.
  • Engage in community awareness initiatives by having curriculum include instruction on signs and symptoms as well as posters around school to serve as constant reminders.
  • Host outside speakers that educate the student body on signs and symptoms. 
  • Engage in regular bystander intervention training for all students, including role-playing and roundtable discussions.
  • Create accessible resources on how to report sexual abuse and how to care for those who have experienced sexual abuse as either a survivor or as a witness. 
    • Provide easy access to information for counselors on call, police, and other campus/community resources on the back of their ID cards, etc.

Early or preemptive identification of sexual abuse can play a key role in minimizing the long-term impacts on the survivor. Below are several signs and symptoms of sexual abuse as well as signs and symptoms of predatory behavior.

Signs and Symptoms of Sexual Abuse

What are Signs From a Student That Should Alert Others to Suspect Sexual Abuse?

A student who is being sexually abused can present signs and symptoms in many different ways and some students do not directly show any signs or symptoms, which is why this can be tricky. The ways in which students suffer from sexual abuse are wide-ranging and the following are just some of the countless ways a victim/survivor might manifest signs of abuse either physically, behaviorally, or emotionally.

Physical Signs of Misconduct and Abuse

Physical signs are often the most rare in cases of sexual abuse in schools because of the trusting nature perpetrators instill in their victims as well as that 93% of survivors/victims of sexual abuse are abused by trusted individuals in their life1

Physical signs of student sexual abuse include but are not limited to (

  • Bruising or bleeding
  • Unexplained injuries
    • A student cannot thoroughly explain the cause of an injury and/or bruising 
  • Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
  • Pregnancy 

Behavioral and Emotional Signs of Misconduct and Abuse

Behavioral and emotional changes in a student are more common than physical signs of sexual abuse. Behavioral and emotional changes can often be brushed off because the victim can simultaneously be going through puberty and teenage years which present their own challenges. Most of the behavior challenges that are signs of sexual abuse include but are not limited to a decline in trust, changes in hygiene practices, changes in performance at school (ie: lower grades, decreased enthusiasm or energy in class), a loss of interest in social activity, rebellious behavior, and drug and alcohol abuse. Emotional signs of abuse include but are not limited to nightmares, excessive worrying, anxiety, depression, and a loss of confidence. Behavioral and emotional signs are more often seen in adolescents than younger children. 

Behavioral signs of student sexual abuse include but are not limited to (

  • Resistance to being left alone with certain people
    • Decline in trust
  • Polarizing reactions to physical touch 
    • Either recoil or freezing to touch
  • Changes in hygiene 
    • Constantly cleaning oneself 
    • Avoids removing clothing or bathing
  • Reverting to old behaviors that they had grown out of 
  • Loss of interest in friends or other social activities 
  • Changes in school performance
    • Late to school functions
      • Class, check-in, practice, etc. 
    • Decrease in enthusiasm or energy in class
    • Excessive studying
    • Sudden change in grades (either in an upward or downward trend)
    • Becoming “lost in their work”
      • Survivors may begin to distract themselves with studying or learning in order to hide the adversity in their lives
  • Rebellious behavior
    • Breaking school rules 
  • Seeking isolation or spaces without supervision 
  • Substance abuse 
  • Eating disorders 
  • Self-harm 
  • Disassociation 
  • Panic attacks 
  • Startled easily 

Emotional signs of student sexual abuse include but are not limited to: 

  • Nightmares or trouble sleeping 
  • Excessive worry 
  • Loss of confidence
  • Anxiety 
  • Depression
  • Flashbacks 
  • PTSD

Indicators of an Adult Perpetrator of Sexual Abuse 

What Are Signs That Both Students and Adults Can Look For to Identify Adult Perpetrators of Sexual Abuse? 

As stated earlier, educators are often thought of as the first line of defense in protecting students from sexual abuse and recognizing the signs of the abuse they might be enduring. Educators also may be the perpetrators of the sexual abuse. It is therefore important to note that 93% of survivors/victims of sexual abuse are abused by trusted individuals in their life ( (i.e. teachers, coaches, family friends, classmates, etc.). 

Behaviors that indicate potential adult predatory behavior include but are not limited to the following ( :

  • A lack of respect for student boundaries
  • Engaging in unwanted touching or touching that makes a student uncomfortable 
  • Attempting to fill the role of a friend to a student 
    • Spending excessive amounts of time with a student
    • Non-age appropriate relationship
  • Discussing personal problems or relationships with a student
  • Spending time with a student outside of normal spaces of interaction 
  • Normalizing sexual behavior 
  • Giving or receiving gifts without reason


There are many different actions that adults can use to engage in grooming students in their care. “Grooming is when someone builds a relationship, trust, and emotional connection with a child or young person (student) so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them." ( Grooming can occur over the internet as well as in person. Not all perpetrators of sexual abuse engage in grooming habits. Abuse can occur in many different venues at any time. Still, grooming actions can be a very clear sign that abuse is occurring or about to occur. 

Grooming behaviors usually follow, but is not limited to, this outline (

  1. Targeting: The perpetrator will find a “vulnerable” student.  Example: The perpetrator may target a student based on a perceived vulnerability such as a student who is unsupervised by parents or lacks meaningful relationships with adults.
  1. Gaining trust: The perpetrator will then find and attend to the student’s needs that make them vulnerable in order to gain trust with the student. Example: The perpetrator will share personal information or secrets with the student.
  1. Filling a need: The perpetrator will insert themself as an increasingly important figure in the student's life. Example: The perpetrator will become over-involved in an increasing amount of aspects of the student’s life.
  1. Isolating the student: The perpetrator will then find ways to have isolated interactions with the student where misconduct can occur. Example: the perpetrator has one-to-one coaching with the student or sleepovers.
  1. Sexualization: The perpetrator will engage in physical touch or sexualize talk that can be regarded as “accidental or playful”, which can enable them to advance in abuse.  Example: an adult speaking with a student about their or the student’s personal relationships. 
  1. Control: The perpetrator will use guilt tactics to enforce a secret and continued participation of the student. Example: the perpetrator will use language to make the student think the events are their fault and will make their life worse or more complicated by sharing the events with others. 

It is important to note that not all perpetrators engage in grooming practices with the student; if grooming does occur, the series of events and the subsequent abuse can occur in any number of ways. There is no prototypical perpetrator or victim/survivor when abuse occurs. (Darkness to Light) 

Boundary Violations

Not all boundary violations are clear engagement in grooming and not all grooming behaviors are clear boundary violations. At Learning Courage we believe schools need to clearly list and explain expectations of employees regarding boundaries in their relationships with students. This process starts with the administration frequently and clearly stating their expectations with all employees around maintaining appropriate boundaries. A boundary violation in a school setting involves any behavior or action by an adult that falls outside professional expectations and causes harm or discomfort to a student3. Teachers are trusted to care safely for their students. A boundary violation is any behavior or action that degrades this trust in the professional contract between a teacher and student. Boundary violations can occur in multiple ways, including emotional, physical, technological, financial, and communicational3. Boundary violations are not always clear, which is why it is important to maintain regular discussions on the topic. But it is the teacher’s responsibility rather than the student to maintain appropriate boundaries and be thoughtful of how their behavior may be perceived as approaching or crossing boundaries. 

Types of boundary violations include but are not limited to (Lucy McAllister)

  • Technological 
    • Social media, emailing, texting, etc. 
      • Communicating with a student via personal (non-work related) social media accounts
      • Sharing personal phone numbers or email addresses 
  • Emotional 
    • Favoritism, treating students as friends 
      • Provides special attention to a student’s issues without informing other faculty members or counselors about the issue 
  • Physical
    • Inappropriate contact 
      • Asking for or offering a backrub or massage
      • Asks a student to sit on their lap
      • Horseplay 
  • Relationship 
    • Engaging in romantic or sexual relationships with current and former students, flirting
      • Inviting and spending time with students at non-sponsored school events
    • Providing alcohol or drugs to students 
  • Power
    • Using the status as an employee to exploit a student for personal gain 
  • Financial
    • Spending money on a student, giving a loan to a student, accepting money from a student
  • Communication
    • Sharing personal information, asking a student for personal information, failing to refer a student to a counselor

What is Online Sexual Misconduct and Abuse?

Online misconduct is defined as “when one person manipulates another person to get them to do something sexual — it’s an ongoing cycle of emotional and psychological abuse. This can include things such as forcing or blackmailing someone into sending sexual photos/videos of themselves online or to perform sexual acts over webcam4.” Not only does this have the potential to create emotional and psychological abuse for the victim, but the online transfer of sexually explicit photos of minors is considered child pornography and can lead to serious legal consequences4. Online sexual misconduct is not limited to adult student contact, but also includes adult to adult and student to student online interactions. Most schools have acceptable use policies that articulate their rules regarding online behavior, sexting, and more. 

Online Sexual Misconduct and Abuse includes but is not limited to (Kids Help Phone)

  • asking anything sexual in nature 
  • sending nude photos or flashing 
  • making any comment in a sexual manner or about sexual activity
  • exposing a person to pornographic material 

Sexual misconduct and abuse can occur in any place and at any time, which includes online spaces. When sexual misconduct and abuse occur online it presents with some unique signs and symptoms compared to the signs and symptoms of sexual misconduct that occur offline. The following are some examples of signs of online sexual misconduct. 

Signs of online misconduct include but are not limited to (Stop It Now):

  • Spending increased time online
  • Becoming increasingly secretive about their online activity
  • Hiding what is on their screen 
  • Unable to speak openly about their online activity.
  • Being possessive of their technology
  • Becoming agitated when there is a lack of privacy when they are online
  • Leaving the house for periods of time with no explanation 
  • Vague explanations of friends they are talking to online

Remote Learning Best Practices

Remote learning is beginning to take a new role in schools across the country. With this change in the way schools are engaging in learning online come new risks of how sexual abuse might adapt to the online environment. Both students and teachers are having more access now than ever before into personal spaces and with that comes an increased risk of misconduct. 

Some techniques to maintain a safe remote learning environment (Equal

  • Require all students to have neutral video backgrounds
  • Disabling student video or screen sharing when it does not aid the learning process
  • Continuously monitor the chat rooms within a remote classroom
    • Both the group chat and private messages 
  • Create clear standards and rules for video conferencing 
  • Establish transparent modes for reporting harassment or misconduct that occurs online
  • Establish support networks for those who have experienced harassment or misconduct online
  • Recording all meetings whether they are full class sessions or office hour videos for the school’s record 
  • Creating an accountability system for office hour (one-on-one) sessions 
    • Requiring student and teachers to log sessions 

For more information on remote learning environments, see the "COVID-19 Resources" page.


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