The Ultimate Betrayal of Trust
Another teacher has been nailed for having sex with a student. Obviously, this is a terrible thing for everyone involved, especially the student and her parents, but it's also a real blow to those of us who care about public schools. Teachers are in a position of trust, and there's nothing worse for our increasingly fragile reputation than to have one of us abuse that trust. Although teachers who abuse their position like this are rare, it does happen. It even happened in my own school, and not so long ago.
I can't speak for female teachers, but one of the occupational hazzards of being a male high school teacher is occasionally having to deal with a girl who has gotten a crush on you. Most girls who get crushes on their teachers are skilled enough socially to keep it from being obvious, and have enough common sense to know that there will never be more than a student-teacher relationship. If the teacher ever finds out about it at all, it might be years after the fact, and at that point, he might find it flattering. Every once in awhile, however, there will be a girl who can make things embarrassing.
A few years ago, I had a girl as a student who obviously saw me as something more than just a teacher. She would often stay after class and try to flirt, and she also wrote chatty notes to me that were bordering on inappropriate. One night when I was at home working in my basement office, the phone rang, and my wife answered it upstairs. She called down to me, so I picked up the basement phone, and it was the girl with the crush. She had been absent that day, and she said, in what she probably thought was a seductive voice, “Did you miss me?” After I hung up, I immediately heard my wife’s voice again, and she definitely was not trying to sound seductive: “WHO WAS THAT?”
Handling this kind of situation is like walking a tightrope. A girl who behaves like that usually has some problems, and this girl was no exception. She had very poor social skills, and most of her classmates viewed her as strange and treated her as such. Her moods were erratic, so I wanted to be very careful not to say or do anything that would hurt her feelings, because I was concerned about the effect that might have on her. On the other hand, I definitely didn’t want to encourage her flirtatious behavior. I also made sure that if I ever ended up alone in my room with her that it wasn’t for very long because I didn’t want to put myself into a position where I could be accused of anything. The idea of a teacher my age getting accused of being romantically involved with a teenager might seem ludicrous, but that is exactly what happened a to a teacher in our school who was five years older than me. Tragically, the accusations turned out to be true.
Just as I was beginning to write my book, In the Trenches, with the idea of defending public education and teachers against all comers at the top of my agenda, our fifty-eight-year-old high school art teacher was arrested for having sex with a student. This story broke on a weekend when I was away, so when I first heard the news, it was by word of mouth. The only things I learned were that the relationship was supposed to have taken place over a two year period and that the girl was 16 years old.
This man had always struck me as being as decent a person as anybody on our staff, and our principal later told me that he considered him one of our top five teachers. I knew the man's wife, who had been very sick with a stomach disorder for a number of years, but he always seemed to be handling it well--with real concern but a total lack of self-pity. I knew his two children, who had grown into adulthood, and they stood as testimony to what a great job their two parents had done. So when I heard about this accusation against him, I thought it couldn't be true. This man that I had known and respected so much for fifteen years couldn't have possibly done such a thing. No way!
That night I watched the regional news, and our school's sex scandal was the lead story. Instead of hearing the denial I expected, they reported that our art teacher had admitted having sex with the girl. The story was disgustingly graphic, and they finished the report by showing actual mug shots the police had taken of this teacher, who up until a week before, had been such a highly respected member of our community. He was now facing twelve years in prison.
I could not believe it! I still can't fathom what could have possessed this fifty-eight-year-old man to have gotten involved in something like this. For a man like this, it was a kind of suicide, but worse. The wonderful reputation he had built during his thirty-five years of teaching--destroyed. His marriage--destroyed. His relationship with his son and daughter--destroyed. How do you tell your family members something like this? Plus, he now had a significant prison sentence looming in front of him.
I had tremendous sympathy for his wife and kids. I could only imagine how they would feel when they would see members from this community that they knew. I can only imagine how his son and daughter felt when the story became known in their new towns. I don’t know how this man could have done this to his family, but I couldn't help but feel some sympathy for him, too. I have had some bad days in my life, and I can remember waking up in the middle of the night with a feeling of dread because of something that happened at school, or because of an argument I had with my wife, or because of some problem going on in one of my kids' lives. It is a horrible feeling. How did he feel when he woke up in the middle of the night thinking about what he was doing with that girl; the feeling of doing something so wrong; knowing that it was only a matter of time before she would tell someone, and he would be exposed? And how did he feel after he was caught? I don’t even want to think about what it would be like to live in that horror.
So, yes, I could feel sympathy for this teacher, but I can’t argue against his prison sentence. There is no worse crime that a teacher can commit. When parents send their children to a school, it is an act of trust--trust that we will keep them safe, trust that we will take good care of them, trust that we will try to help them to become better people, and trust that we will treat them as if they were our own children. To do what our art teacher did, and to do what this teacher from North Dakota has done is the ultimate betrayal of that trust.