There are a lot of unspoken teacher codes, especially for male teachers: never be in a room alone with a student, particularly a female student. Never drive a student and never be in a car alone with a student. Always keep the door open when you’re alone with a student, particularly a female student.
I received this advice from various sources very early on in my career. In one instance, I was supervising a field trip with another school employee. We waited until all the students were able to get home. It was almost midnight, and one student didn’t have a ride and had no way of getting home. We wanted to get her home as soon as possible, and we also wanted to protect ourselves. We knew neither of us would behave with impropriety towards a minor, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was the appearance of impropriety.
These were extenuating circumstances. We weren’t going to order a student an Uber because they were a minor. And we also weren’t going to drive a student home by ourselves because of the liability that would open us to. At the same time, we really didn’t want to be there until 1 a.m., waiting for the student’s parent to get off of work. We also didn’t have verbal written permission from the parent.
The school employee, who is much more legally aware and savvy than I was, agreed to drive the student home only under one circumstance: if I sat in the car while he drove the student home. That way, we could back each other up as witnesses in case of any allegations that might arise. And he was skittish if both of us were simultaneously accused of impropriety. We drove the student home, but he was incredibly uneasy and reiterated to me that it was only a last resort given the situation.
At the time, I thought he was being ridiculous and paranoid. Now, however, I’ve thought about the situation more. And I realize he was right to be careful. While the topic of false accusations is taboo in this day and age, the sad fact is you have to be careful as a male teacher and authority figure. I realize this whole topic is taboo, but innocent until proven guilty might be a feature of the legal system, but it is not a feature of the court of public opinion, especially not for a profession like being a teacher.
Griffin Education Enterprises documents precautions that must be taken as male teachers to protect ourselves professionally. A lot of this might come down to common sense, but female teachers would do well to protect themselves under the same set of standards as well.
There is nothing less redeeming in society than a male pedophile and child molester. And an allegation is game over for your career as a teacher: most parents will no longer trust you, other employers will not give you the benefit of the doubt. Sure, there are teachers’ unions, but the horror stories are out there: one teacher at Canberra was recently cleared of charges of child sexual abuse in the 1980s.
I know this because a teacher in my high school was accused of groping a student.
Reflecting as a teacher today
In my high school, there was a science teacher who was well-respected and liked by a lot of our peers. I saw him in the hallways occasionally. A lot of my friends really liked him.
And then the news broke with the man’s mugshot. He was accused of fondling a 15-year-old student. It was all over the news. The news divided the community. Some wondered why there was so much news about allegations when there wasn’t an investigation yet since the teacher had kids and a family. Some parents thought it was absolutely despicable, while others suspended judgment pending the investigation. The school district said they were disturbed by the allegations.
The teacher pleaded not guilty. To this day, I have no idea what happened or what came of the allegations, and that’s probably for the best. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t on the jury. Overall, it’s just none of my business.
But I remember what I thought at the time. I was in the car of a friend and his mother and she said “unfortunately, there’s gotta be some truth to it.” I nodded my head and agreed. The student wouldn’t be making the allegation unless there was some truth to it — what did she have to gain?
Guilty until proven innocent is how the world works right now
I certainly can’t find the data for it, but the hunch is the number of teachers who have abused children and committed statutory rape is much higher than the number of false allegations against teachers.
As a teacher now, I believe in innocent until proven personally. I now agree with suspending judgment pending a criminal investigation and trial, like any person in a civil society. Like I wondered what the student could have gained from making the allegations, I also wondered how the teacher could have had such a lapse in judgment to throw his career, reputation, and whole life away.
However, not everyone thinks like that, especially not in this day and age. In truth, it does not matter whether the teacher is guilty or not. In the court of public opinion, he is automatically guilty and perception is reality. The trial did not matter. The first thing other school districts are going to see when they Google his name is “Teacher Accused of Sexually Assaulting Student.” I’m not saying his life is over, but his life as a teacher is definitely over.
Child sexual abuse is a serious problem. News reports of teachers and coaches sentenced for statutory rape are very frequent. In no world can we rationalize an adult having sex with a minor. Dr. David Finkelhor at The Conversation says there’s no federal agency that collects data on national statistics about the problem, but he estimates about 500 known cases per year from the data. Finkelhor is certain the problem is actually much larger due to underreporting. All instances must be reported under Title IX to protect children.
The solution is simple for teachers: don’t abuse children. Protect children. That is in our job description. But, to some degree, every teacher, male or female, must protect themselves. Female teachers get accused of sexual misconduct too. And our reputations as teachers matter as people responsible for safeguarding children— nothing destroys your reputation more than an accusation.
This is taboo to talk about and write about. But I think it’s important to be honest and transparent about this dialogue among teachers. Any time there is potential for child abuse and impropriety must be shut down, not just for our professional well-being, but for the children’s sakes themselves. We must establish boundaries to maintain our credibility, maintain respect for the profession, and most importantly, protect children from abuse.
Photo by javier trueba on Unsplash
Originally published on July 29, 2021 on The Partnered Pen
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