When teachers break trust

July 01, 2011 5:06 PM



The school aide driving a student home from a field trip kept touching the student’s leg.

The girl pushed his hand away. “Don’t touch me.”

He smiles. “I really like you. I’ll take you for ice cream.”

The girl says more forcefully. “Stop, or I will tell my parents. Take me home.”

“I was just trying to be friends. Don’t tell anyone.”

“I won’t tell,” she says. But later, she does.

This was a roll playing session recently at a Kidpower Colorado Springs class, where youngsters practiced how to react to inappropriate behavior.

“Who does your body belong to?” a teacher asked.

“To me,” the kids yelled.

“Who decides who can touch you?”

“Me!” the kids responded.

Jan Isaacs Henry,executive director of Kidpower, which provides safety and self esteem classes, explained, “Abuse is about secrecy, coercion and manipulation. Practicing responses makes the effort more automatic if something happens.”

It was the Catholic priest scandal that more than 20 years ago put the spotlight on child abuse by those in a position of trust. Since then all sorts of legal safeguards, safety programs and school policies have been set in place to deter such criminal acts, whether they occur at home, at summer camp or in the classroom.

While that effort has had a chilling effect, it has not eradicated abuse.

Locally, two headline-grabbing incidents have occurred recently.

Joshua Carrier, a volunteer coach and former police resource officer at Horace Mann Middle school, is charged with 78 counts of sexual assault involving six children and 10 counts of possession of child pornography. This week, he pleaded not guilty to the pornography charges and a preliminary hearing was set for Sept. 15 on the sex assault charges.

Last week, Anthony Ribaudo II, a Fountain-Fort Carson High School dean of students, was arrested and police say he admitted having sex with a 17-year-old female student.

Such incidents have parents wondering just what safeguards are in place.

Professional ethics training for most educators begins early in their college classes.

Students in the teacher training program at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs get big doses, starting in a class called “School, Society and Diversity” and continuing throughout the four years, including field experiences in schools, said Professor Catherine Kelly, chairwoman of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

Students are required to write a personal Code of Ethics, which they update several times before they graduate as their understanding grows.

In classroom management courses they discuss “proximity control.”

“It used to be you could put a hand on a student’s shoulder, but now you shouldn’t touch them period,” Kelly noted. Also new are warnings about appropriate use of social media, email and texting by teachers to students and their parents, and to co-workers.

But training won’t end errant or criminal behavior.

“You can talk about ethics and inappropriate behavior, and make educators aware of their responsibilities, but no matter the amount of training sometimes it will happen. We can’t always control human nature, people are still people,” Kelly said.

Most districts include teacher conduct in written policies, said Brad Stauffer, spokesman for Colorado Association of School Boards. The organization provides sample policies to districts.

In the districts where the recent incidents took place – Fountain-Fort Carson School District 8 and Colorado Springs School District 11 – policies spell out sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior. In some districts, including District 8, employees must sign documents that they understand these policies.

The same is true in Harrison School District 2, where employees must sign a document annually attesting that they have reread and understand those rules.

“That way they can’t say ‘I forgot,’” said School Board President Deborah Hendrix. “If you violate the rules you put your job in jeopardy. We make it clear, such behavior will not be tolerated.”

Harrison Superintendent Mike Miles said it boils down to: “They aren’t the students’ friends, they must keep a professional distance.”

But the issue can be a two-edged sword for administrators. Accusations of inappropriate behavior must be credible.

“We always err on the side of protecting kids. But at the same time you don’t want to ruin the career of someone who is not guilty,” Miles said.

Mary Thurman, assistant superintendent in District 11, said, “We make sure everyone knows about them. And we take any allegations very seriously.

“When we get wind of anything, even a rumor, we have security and human resources investigate the allegations to see if something is there and if thought to be serious, the police are called in,” Thurman said.

“The safety of children is our number one priority is so when it happens everyone feels sadness and also anger and frustration,” said D-11 spokeswoman Elaine Naleski. “ Why would they harm a student? Why would they throw their careers away? There doesn’t seem to be a rational answer.”

Surprisingly, some teachers and students don’t believe that their relationships are inappropriate. This attitude most often occurs when teachers just out of college are teaching older students they consider to be peers.

Naleski recalled a situation where a freshman and a senior dated in high school. The senior graduated, went to college and came back to teach. The girlfriend was then one his students, and they dated.

“It was a weird situation and it was wrong. If they are 17 they are still kids.”

Several studies have shown that students who are abused or who know about abuse don’t always tell authorities, said Tammi Pitzen, interim executive director of Safe Passage, a local non-profit that works with abused children and agencies to minimize the trauma of investigations.

“A lot of times teens are confused. They think they have a relationship and a future with the person abusing them,” Pitzen explained. “And that person is someone they trust so don’t think they would do something wrong.”

With older teens, it is important to talk about safe and unsafe behavior and boundaries and what sexual assault is, she said.

Isaacs Henry of Kidpower said kids don’t report abuse to school officials because they may feel ashamed, embarrassed, or even guilty that it is their fault. They also fear no one will believe them. And sometimes the student likes the attention that they receive from the abuser.

One of every four females and one in six males are sexually assaulted before age 18. and it’s not the scary man in the park. Ninety percent of incidents involve people they know, and about 30 percent of incidents go unreported until adulthood, Pitzen noted.

The laws involving unlawful sexual behavior are complicated, explains Sgt. Hugh Velasquez, of the Crimes Against Children Unit at the Colorado Springs Police Department.

Such laws take into consideration age and the suspect’s relation to the victim.

One of the main statutes covers sexual assault on a child by one in a position of trust, which includes any person — parent, caregiver, teacher or others — who have general supervision of a child.

In general, once a student is 17 they can consent to have sex with almost anyone except someone in a position of trust.

Courts have made it clear that teachers are in a position of trust.

“School districts do a good job of letting employees know the boundaries that cannot be crossed,” said Kelly Dude of Anderson, Dude and Lebel, who does legal work for 19 school districts. “But they can’t guarantee that person won’t do something stupid.”

The Colorado Department of Education, which oversees licensing of teachers and administrators, tracks arrests. All license applicants undergo a background check and are fingerprinted.Those fingerprint cards are specially coded so that when a licensed educator is arrested and matched to the database, CDE is notified. Those officials in turn notify the school district.

The tracking helps prevent suspects from moving undetected from one job to another in different districts explained Jami Goetz, executive director, Office of Professional Services and Educator Licensing.

“They can’t hide,” she said.

Out of 35,000 educator applications received by CDE yearly, about 1,000 are flagged for investigation, and about 40 are denied or revoked for various reasons, Goetz said.

A rule implemented in May requires school districts within 24 hours to notify parents when employees are arrested or charged.

“One of the difficulties with the new rule is that districts have to advise parents of an arrest when the person hasn’t necessarily been charged or found guilty, yet they have the obligation to report that, said Dude. Districts are required to notify parents after receiving notice that the charges against the employee were dropped.

“But by then it can be difficult to erase the original message from people’s minds,” Dude said.

Despite the safeguards, there are no guarantees.

“You can do everything right and still find children in a bad situation,” Pitzen noted.

The best protection is to control the environment when you can, give kids the skills they need to be safe, keep lines of communication with children open and let them know you are supportive. Talk about tough topics. Know what is going on in their lives, Pitzen said.

Be vigilant, keep the antenna up, she said. Heed those inner alarms if something doesn’t seem right.

Read more: http://www.gazette.com/articles/student-120830-school-driving.html#ixzz1REw8nvsm