By Madelynn Coldiron
Russell Independent Superintendent Dr. Susan Compton says she wasn’t aware of the pervasiveness of inappropriate teacher-student contact until she was hit with a shocker in her own district involving a school orchestra leader.
“I’ve experienced a lot of things in my career but this was the most devastating thing to have to deal with,” she said.
“The magnitude (of these kinds of incidents) now is unbelievable,” Compton said. “It’s on university campuses, corporate organizations and it’s also in our public schools.”
These cases also can reflect on school board members, even though they have no personnel role, said Gene Peel, chairman of the Jessamine County school board. The district recently dealt with a case involving a former track coach.
“We set the policy for the district and if we’re not proactive in that, then regardless of what the law says, we’re not doing our job. Because above all we want to bring our kids to school and have a good experience at school and we want to get them home safe. That’s my job,” Peel said.
Training and awareness
Jessamine County Schools is being proactive in the aftermath of its case. As it retools its coaches manual, the board is looking at adding specific language that will address issues such as “don’t run a kid home in your own car; don’t be alone in your car with a player,” Superintendent Lu Young said.
Peel said the changes in the manual are expected to be the focus of the athletic director’s regular summer meeting with coaches.
In response to both its own incident and the high-profile arrest of a Penn State University’s coach, the district also will be rolling out its own mid-year online training for staff on the duty to report abuse, harassment and discriminating behaviors, complete with concrete examples.
Jessamine County’s experience, “really highlighted for us that the more front-end thought and intentional policy language and clear expectations that we can wrap around these kinds of issues, the better,” Young said. “Don’t make the assumption that people know what to do and what not to do.”
Warren County Superintendent Tim Murley says he was taken aback when a Bowling Green police detective took information from the personal journal he keeps on his desk during an investigation of a case in that district. But, he said, he realized these notes helped the district.
“It was easily proven that I had contacted the police – I had the date and time and name of the officer I talked to,” Murley said.
That reinforced the need to document “everything that you possibly can,” as soon as a complaint is received and all the actions taken after that, Murley said.
Along those lines, Compton said once law enforcement and other agencies have been notified, it’s important to call the board attorney and school board members next.
After a 2004 case in Boone County, the district, state Department for Community-Based Services, Sheriff’s Department and commonwealth’s attorney’s office hammered out an interlocal cooperation agreement to work collaboratively on reports of teacher-student abuse, said Boone County Schools Superintendent Randy Poe. The agreement sets up a joint protocol for sharing information and streamlining reporting.
Poe said the experience also taught the district “to be as transparent as possible” within the framework of confidentiality laws, family privacy requests and the legal rights of all parties. In a more recent case, he said, “We told the community up front.”
Young said she and her administrative team view incidents of inappropriate behavior as teachable moments rather than something to be swept under the carpet.
“When these incidents happen, it’s our chance as school leaders to say let’s all be reminded of the proper comportment and what our expectations are,” she said. “We’re seizing the opportunity to learn from the tragedy of Penn State to do everything we can to keep it from happening here.”
Compton believes annual training should be required for the superintendent, staff and board members about what districts face “in regards to the social media issues, bullying, sexting, harassment and so on.”
Young said the main legal loophole in dealing with inappropriate behavior between teacher and student was closed by the legislature several years ago. It authorized criminal charges against a person in a position of trust or authority for sexual offenses involving individuals under 18.
State law also requires criminal background checks before districts hire – but that’s an area Compton believes should be strengthened.
She advocates a law that would require districts to run random criminal records checks on staff to catch anything of a sexual nature that has occurred after the initial check upon hiring.
“I think we’re going to have to do more,” she said.