The Ethics of Student-Teacher Relationships and Violations of a Sacred Trust

The Ethics of Student-Teacher Relationships and Violations of a Sacred Trust

Recently the Washington Post published a news article describing the arrest of a teacher who was arrested for having a sexual relationship with her eighth grade student. The incident raised the specter of the most egregious aspect of teacher ethics and calls all educators to question why such events occur and how we can prevent them.

Following is an excerpt from a chapter I wrote for a book co-edited by Troy Hutchings, former Research Chair for the Center for Professional Responsibility in Education, entitled Safe Student and School Employee Relationships: A Primer for Preventing K-12 Boundary Violations, currently in publication. 

Overview

            My school’s band director, a 26-year-old male, was convicted of 10 counts of lewd and lascivious battery with a minor under 16.  The crimes included sexual acts that occurred, not only in his apartment, but in the school’s band room as recently as the morning he was arrested.  The teacher plead guilty and was sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison, a sentence he continues to serve.

            Following the arrest, I sent a letter to parents.  I wrote,

As you may be aware, our music director was arrested last Friday for sexual misconduct with a minor.   The purpose of this letter is to let you know what we are doing at the school to work through this situation. 

First, we cooperated with law enforcement as we worked with the family. This morning, I talked to our entire student body through our televised network. Through the day I met with the band classes.  Tonight I will meet with our band parents and their children.   It is important for students to hear directly from me that the band director's behavior, as reported to law enforcement, was inexcusably wrong.  I also want students to know that there are people available to talk to them about any feelings they may be having as they grapple with trust issues or emotions they don't fully understand. 

This is an upsetting situation for our entire school and community. Unfortunately, one adult's actions have impacted all of us. We work very hard to provide students with a meaningful education. 

I will continue to work with you to address your concerns. Please contact the school with any questions or concerns you may have.

Sincerely,

Jim Lane

Principal

Meeting With Band Parents

            That night I met with more than 300 parents and community members in the school auditorium.   It was the most difficult meeting I have ever faced.  Again, I tried to be informative and reassuring, but this was a potentially turbulent crowd whose children had also been vicariously violated.  I too was violated, and I tried to show that.  Here is the message I read to the group:

As educators we hold a position of great trust within the Orange Pines community.  You entrust us with the care of your children, and that is the greatest trust of all.  Accepting that responsibility, we are held to a higher moral standard and are expected by you, by your children, and by our colleagues, to maintain the highest degree of ethical conduct.  One of our teachers has breached that trust.  What has happened is a terrible tragedy on many levels – for our children, for our school, and for our community.   

As principal, I have the pain that one of my teachers has broken faith.  But I also have the pain of a parent who has seen one of my son’s role models collapse.  Like you, I have experienced many emotions over the past several days, ranging from disbelief to shock to anger.  Over everything is a great sadness that this has happened to our kids in our school.

I want to tell you tonight that it is my commitment and the superintendent’s commitment to maintain a quality music program for our students.  We have advertised the position and will be searching for an outstanding candidate.  Several parents have asked to join us in the interview process, and I welcome their participation.

 I can understand if some of you are angry with us and want to pull your children out of the band program.  I hope that you do not.  A terrible thing has happened, but this event should not further taint or destroy the larger benefit of music and instruction in the fine arts. 

Today I visited each music class, along with our counselors, school psychologist, and social worker.  We told them that sometimes adults do bad things.  We said we understand that they are upset, and that we have an adult they can talk to, if they want.  We also encouraged them to talk to you, because as their parent, you are their first and best counselor.  We said we will continue the band program as usual, since their education is our first priority.

I know you may now be suspicious of teachers who take an undo interest in your children or offer to help them after school.  This may be especially true in extracurricular activities, where teachers and students often spend many hours before and after school.  Most teachers are caring, compassionate, and have the well being of their students as their first priority.  The teachers in this school are exceptional.  I deeply regret that they have been tainted with this tragedy, and I hope that you will come to trust them again.

Of many questions thrust at me that night, the one I remember came from a parent whom I consider a friend.  He asked, “Jim, what systemic steps have you taken to be sure nothing like this ever happens again?” 

What could I say?  I don’t know how a principal can prevent such a crime.  Professional ethics clearly prohibit this type of abuse, and I don’t think that signing a Code of Ethics sheet in a faculty meeting does anything to prevent this egregious ethical breach. If one does not have an internal moral brake to prevent such an act, no outside force can prevent it.  While I sensed all this, I had not clarified the issue for myself. Could I as the school’s leader declare that we could do nothing to prevent such a horror? Parents were rightly angry and frustrated, as was I.  I responded honestly that I was as shocked as they were and had no answer.

We were stunned that Mickey Brown was the protagonist in this tragedy.  He had been an outstanding teacher.  Under his direction the band performed better than they had with two previous band directors.  They had won numerous “Superior” ratings for both group and individual performances, accomplishments that had long been unprecedented in our school.  He had been one of my stars. He was a gifted teacher.  His students loved him, but he spent an inordinate amount of time with them.  Ironically, he was a loner and spent little time with his peers.  Despite everything, no one thought there was anything askew, even though the signs were there. Many students spent time with him, and none reported anything amiss.

 Among those most frustrated at their misjudgment were two teachers who taught in the room next to his.  The band suite was housed in a building separate from the rest of the school.   The same structure, however, held two classrooms staffed by a pair of seasoned and savvy teachers.  They were two women who probably had a combined fifty years of teaching between them.  Like everyone else, they recounted the events that led to the demise of their classroom neighbor.  Like Mickey Brown, they were dedicated and spent many extra hours at the school. Like Mickey, they arrived early, but he was already there. Like Mickey, they stayed late, but he stayed later.  Like the rest of us, they attributed his actions to dedication, youthful zeal, naïve dedication, but never to anything more. One of them remarked, “We beat ourselves up over and over about what we missed.” An ironic summary came from the head of the teacher’s union. A crusty teaching veteran of 37 years, he quipped to me wryly, “And I was getting ready to nominate the guy for the Teacher of the Year!”  Their comments captured both our admiration and our angst.                 

The overwhelming majority of teachers are dedicated, compassionate, and center the best interests of their students as the basis for everything they do.  We know that this event challenged that belief and trust.  We must work to rebuild that trust.  With it, our teachers and schools can continue to accomplish great things.  Without it, our public school system cannot function.   

Seminal Questions

            What are the factors (social, political, economic, and technological) that YOU believe contribute to inappropriate intimacy with students (including sexual misconduct) in our schools?

            What are the impediments to preventing or eliminating employee and child misconduct in the schools?

            What strategies, policies, and/or procedures do you feel are most effective in protecting both students and staff from sexual misconduct?

            What more should be done, and by whom?

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