Friday, March 30, 2007

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.


Blogger ms-teacher said...

We have had two sex scandales this past year at our high schools in the district I teach. One teacher was accused of molesting a family member and ended up jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge about a week after his arrest. Co-teachers at my school site knew this family and some had taught his kids. I couldn't help but think that this man was very selfish on so many levels.

3/31/2007 10:11 AM  
Blogger The Educational Tour Marm said...

When I was training tour guides for one of my student tour companies, I had to emphasize that while the guides are expected to be friendly, they must also stay aloof and professional.

They may not walk into a hotel room, even to do a bed check. They can never be alone with a student. If a student sits down besides the guide, he/she must get up and join the group or adults, and suggest that the student joins his/her classmates. They must not compliment a student privately. And they may not even touch a student. (I do give 'group hugs, and high-fives, but that's it.) They may not even swim with the kids. Any emergency situation also requires that a teacher be present.

Students do come on strong to young, attractive guides (as do some teachers!), and guides are attracted to the seemingly 'mature' students.

If there is any inappropriate behavior on the part of a student, it must be reported to the teacher and to the company immediately.

I have known several colleagues with student tour companies who have gotten into a great deal of trouble, even when the accusations were false. (Interestingly enough, it hasn't been with any of the gay guides, that I know of!)

While we have a responsibility to protect children, we also need to monitor and protect ourselves.

One would think that educators who are mature adults would have understood the implications of their actions. It's downright immoral; I can't understand their mindsets and recklessness.

3/31/2007 11:53 AM  
Anonymous no cute screen name said...

Of course teacher shouldn't have sex with students - even adult students in college, because of the power differential. But there's something deeply contradictory about our attitude toward teenagers and sex.

If, as I understand it, the rationale for prohibiting sex between adults and underage teens is that the teens aren't mature enough to consent, then how can they be mature enough to consent to sex with other teens? And yet we don't really try to stop those relationships. Instead, we give them condoms and sage advice.

Like it or not, a lot of 15-, 16-, and 17-year-old girls really are attracted to older men. Some of them are attracted to much, much older men.

If these girls consent to sex with such men, no matter how mature they are (and girls in that age range are a lot more mature in 2007 than they were when I was 15 or 16 myself), the men risk prison.

But if the girls happen to prefer some inexperienced pimply-faced kid their own age, everything's fine. Why should that be the case?

If a 16-year-old is really incapable of consenting to sex, then two 16-year-olds are doubly incapable. Why aren't we forcing all the sexually active teens in the country into counseling or sending them to the Youth Authority to get straightened out?

3/31/2007 3:29 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Ms. Teacher, your story is better than mine, but neither of them are very uplifting.

ETM, those policies sound so rigid, but today they are so necessary. Teachers and Catholic priests are in about the same boat in this area.

NCSN, I think you raise a great point. There is no question that sexual relationships between teens can be damaging, but we have become very accepting of them.

3/31/2007 7:37 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I had patient who was molested by a teacher when she was 14. She was 26 when she came to see me and she was still traumatized by the whole incident.

I suppose there are situations where a teacher might be 22 and a student those cases the teacher should just wait until the student graduates and if there was anything real there, they can have a relationship then. But a fifty-something man who has sex with an underage girl has serious psychological issues. He might not be treatable and prison is the best place for him.

4/01/2007 4:35 PM  
Anonymous Ian H. said...

The difference in the two scenarios that NCSN mentioned is the authority - students may not feel that they can say "no" to an authority figure with power over them, whereas when it's someone the same age, that's hardly the case.

4/02/2007 6:47 AM  
Anonymous NCSN said...

"whereas when it's someone the same age, that's hardly the case."

Oh, really? You think 15- and 16-year-old girls never feel pressured, emotionally and physically, by muscular, testosterone-saturated 15- and 16-year-old boys who want to have sex with them? What dream world do you live in, sir?

4/02/2007 9:39 AM  
Blogger CrypticLife said...

"You think 15- and 16-year-old girls never feel pressured, emotionally and physically, by muscular, testosterone-saturated 15- and 16-year-old boys "

For what it's worth, that's not the legal standard. 22-year old girls are sometimes pressured in such a manner as well.

Presumably, the legal requirement is because of an adult's far greater sophistication than a child's.

Obviously, this is a terrible thought for a parent to live with. It's clear teachers who do this are experiencing serious issues in their own lives, so I tend to feel a mix of anger and sympathy for them for being so confused. Of course, if it were any of my kids involved, the sympathy would shrivel away quite quickly, I'm sure.

4/02/2007 3:51 PM  
Anonymous NCSN said...

In my first post, I was making a point about the inherent contradiction between the legal standard and the way we actually treat sex between two people who cannot legally consent to sex.

I wasn't saying anything about the legal standard in the second post.
I was replying to ian h, who rather dismissively said that the difference between underage-girl/older-man sex and underage-girl/underage-boy sex is that in the latter situation, it is "hardly the case" that a girl would feel pressured. That's simply wrong.

Girls often feel pressured to say yes, regardless of the age of the person pressuring them for sex.

Is it harder for them to do so with an authority figure? It depends entirely on the girl. Some girls may think "eewwww!" when an older man comes on to them, not, "Gee, what can I do but give in?"

But the same girls may not feel able to say no to hooking up with boys their own age (which really means little more than servicing them orally these days, without any expectation of reciprocity).

They may fear losing the boy's attention. They may fear being ridiculed as uptight. If they're alone with the boy and he's being esp. aggressive, they may fear being forced and give in to maintain some sense of control over how rough things get.

If you don't think pressures like that are real, you don't know much about teenage girls.

4/02/2007 4:33 PM  
Blogger ms-teacher said...

NCSN, I also think that you fail to take into consideration that some boys may feel pressured as well. As a middle school teacher, I've seen some very aggressive female students coming onto boys who feel intimidated. As a mother, I've also had girls relentlessly phone call my own son when he was a 7th grader and they were in 10th grade.

Boys can also be victims. I think it is just easier to think that boys like it because that's the stereotype - one that I think is an extremely dangerous one.

4/07/2007 12:30 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Crypticlife and Ms. Teacher, I see both of your points, but I don't know if either of you are really disagreeing with NCSN. Maybe I'm wrong, but I understand the main point of NCSN's comments as being that we are too accepting of teen sexual relationships. If that's the case, I completely agree. The only problem is that I'm not sure what we should do about it.

4/08/2007 2:27 PM  
Anonymous ncsn said...

"I understand the main point of NCSN's comments as being that we are too accepting of teen sexual relationships."

Exactly, Dennis. Thank you. (And I *do* mean actual teen sexual relationships, not teen sexuality, which is different.)

4/08/2007 5:06 PM  

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