By Madelynn Coldiron
The number of reported cases of inappropriate relationships between a teacher and a student skyrocketed last year in Kentucky schools, with sexually related instances rising to 45 by the end of November, compared with 25 in 2010. Several more cases were expected to be added to the 2011 figure.
“I think that has a lot to do with social media and I think that has to do with more and more superintendents and school personnel that have been very savvy about the warning signs. They know what to look for,” said Alicia Sneed, legal division director at the Education Professional Standards Board.
Sneed said while the increase was “huge” comparatively, it was small considering that there are 40,000 teachers in Kentucky. In 2010, the board began separating reports of inappropriate relationships into sexual and nonsexual because “we started seeing more and more complaints where individuals were crossing the boundary, but not in a sexual way,” Sneed said.
Teresa Combs, who heads KSBA’s Legal and Administrative Services, believes it’s the reporting of inappropriate student contact rather than the prevalence that has increased. Besides the legal requirement to report these cases, there has been a cultural shift, she said.
“People didn’t use to understand that it wasn’t really a social relationship for an adult – it is a power thing. I think people didn’t really understand it could be detrimental for a 16-year-old to be dating a 25-year-old. I think our public now is more enlightened,” she said.
While electronic communications and social networking may have made it easier for educators to cross the line with students, it also provides a record that makes the contact easier to prove, noted Myron Thompson, KSBA’s director of Risk Management.
A strong message
State law, district policies, employee handbooks and the EPSB’s code of conduct are all clear on the subject: “Don’t go there,” said Dara Bass, KSBA’s director of Policy Services. “I don’t think that these occurrences have happened due to a lack of policies on the books or even a big lapse in training.”
Sneed said teachers are told that violation of the student-teacher boundaries, particularly sexual, is the “death penalty” for certification.
Bass said school staff need to hear a strong, consistent and regularly reiterated message from the central office down to the schools that these behaviors are forbidden.
Likewise, school boards “have to set the culture and the tone that this will not be tolerated in our district and we’re going to do everything we can to prevent it,” Thompson said.
Administrators and others, he added, need to “zero in” on four groups that tend to crop up in these cases: coaches, band directors, drama teachers and special education teachers.
“When you look at those groups of individuals, they tend to have more outside time with a small group of students, whether it’s competitions or practices and traveling, and that peer-to-peer sort of relationship gets elevated,” he said.
Young teachers, who may have more in common with students than their peers, also fall into this category, Thompson said.
State law does not require districts to give employees training in this area, but it can easily be worked into training on harassment that most districts already conduct, Bass said. Both Combs and Thompson provide training as well.
All employees should know the law and board policy on inappropriate educator-student relationships and also know the signs of a ‘grooming’ situation in which the abuser lays the groundwork with the child, Bass said.
Sneed said education and training are key to stemming the tide of these cases. For board teams, she said, it’s important to make sure policies are up to date, “so if you do have a complaint you know exactly what’s supposed to happen, there’s protocol in place and nobody’s surprised. At the same time, you’re protecting the individual if it turns out not to be true.”
Combs pointed out that school board members may not realize they have the same legal duty as does any citizen in Kentucky to report suspected child abuse to authorities – including instances in which they learn of allegations involving employees of the district. They can’t interfere with the superintendent’s authority over personnel, she said, but they must report to authorities.
Jon Akers, director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety, said along with staff training, it would be helpful for students to receive “age appropriate lessons” on this issue within the context of similar school safety messages.
Sneed said, “I think, especially after Penn State, there’ll be an emphasis back to student education on what are appropriate interactions with adults and what are inappropriate interactions.”
Bass said she suspects students often know that something inappropriate is going on with another student and a staff member before other adults do. The relationship affects those students as well as the victim, she said.