Kentucky School Advocate
By Madelynn Coldiron
Inappropriate relationships between teachers and students is not a new issue for the Education Professional Standards Board, but it reached critical mass recently with a request from state Rep. Regina Bunch for a task force to study the issue.
“I just feel like we have let students down,” said Bunch, a special education teacher who chairs special education referral meetings at Whitley County Middle School. “We’ve got to have something that’s able to be enforced, that people know there’s going to be strict punishment, that you’re going to lose your degree, and rightfully so – you have no business in the classroom, you’ve lost the trust of the community and the school system and you certainly don’t need to be able to go to another one.”
Triggered by Bunch’s concerns, which also were outlined in a newspaper op-ed piece, the EPSB voted in June to create a task force, charging it with reviewing and making recommendations on combating inappropriate student-teacher relationships.
EPSB member Allen Kennedy, Hancock County school board chairman who also serves as KSBA’s president, said he supports the move to form the group.
“We’re monitoring to some degree, but we somehow have to educate our teachers of the realities of life – that there are just things that you can’t do, and that’s one of them,” he said. “We entrust our kids to the teachers, to the school systems. And we have to, as a school system, basically guarantee that they’re going to be safe.”
Kennedy emphasized the importance of preventing such incidents on the front end, which EPSB Acting Executive Director Jimmy Adams echoed.
“(The EPSB) primarily deals with what happens after these things have occurred. But if we can be preventative, that’s what we want to do, so ideally they would never occur,” Adams said.
Adams said superintendents are doing a good job in discovering and reporting inappropriate relationships between educators and students.
EPSB board member and Pendleton County Schools Superintendent Anthony Strong said these allegations are investigated and addressed by both school administrators and the EPSB, but he sees weak links elsewhere in the process.
If there is an increase in these incidents, he said, “it’s either at the front end where people don’t feel comfortable reporting or you’re in a situation where society has changed and people don’t see things as being inappropriate, and we’ve got to do a better job of educating them on what’s correct and what’s not correct.”
Bunch said she’s frustrated with the amount of time it takes to remove or suspend the certification of educators involved in these incidents. But Adams said there are many variables, such as whether there is a pending criminal case, so the time the process takes “is almost on a case-by-case basis.”
Bunch thinks teachers are aware of the guidelines, but “we need to be more specific” in how they relate to the use of social media, which she said “has created a whole new ballgame.”
She suggested the EPSB board look at ideas like requiring educators to copy parents or school administrators on any electronic communication with students, or requiring permission to be obtained for such contact.
Terry Abbott, chairman of Drive West Communications, whose company compiled state-by-state figures on inappropriate relationships between school employees and students, sounded a similar theme in a column he wrote for The Washington Post, calling social media and texting “an open gateway for inappropriate behavior.”
Abbott urged schools to have specific policies governing electronic communication. He cited a New Jersey model policy banning teachers from friending students on social media without written approval of their principal.
His company’s study ranked Kentucky second among states for per capita rate of inappropriate relationships between school employees and students.
Adams said the task force ideally would submit a report to the EPSB for its October meeting, and submit recommendations for the board at its December meeting. Adams said if legislation is recommended, that might be too late to prepare for the 2016 General Assembly. But, he added, “Based on the study I’ve done so far on this, I think that some of these recommendations would actually go back to schools or districts.”
Action steps for school districts
From Robert J. Shoop’s Sexual Exploitation in Schools, 2004
• Establish a policy prohibiting sexual exploitation that describes inappropriate behaviors and makes it clear that no form of sexual exploitation will be tolerated. The school board should review this regularly, publicize it and also make it clear to the community. Employees and students should sign a statement saying they have read the policy.
• Carefully screen and select all new employees.
• Revise all handbooks – faculty and student handbooks should specifically forbid this type of contact.
• Use a uniform system of incident reporting and centralized record keeping to track complaints annually and by building. (Kentucky law also has reporting requirements.)
• Require training for all employees to cover the policy, along with ways to prevent and stop sexual exploitation.
• Require training for all students. They should be made aware of warning signs of an exploitation situation, including those that are linked to or lead to sexual activity and those that are nonsexual but may signal a future violation, i.e., the “grooming” process.