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The Perils of Touching a Student

One day in the distant future, historians will look back at the atmosphere in public schools that chilled the emotional connection between teachers and students and try to explain how things got so bad ("Giving a Student a Hug," The New York Times, Oct. 12). I acknowledge that bonding with students does not necessarily require a hug or other innocent sign of affection.  But at the same time, a simple pat on the back or the like can be just what is needed.

Instead, public-school teachers are forced to walk on eggs in their dealings with their students lest they be accused of a career-ending accusation. When I was teaching grades 10-12, I saw the handwriting on the wall that put teachers on the defensive. One was a directive from the principal recommending that teachers keep their classroom doors open at all times when conferring alone with their students.  The clear intent was to protect teachers from false charges of sexual abuse.  I suppose that's why male doctors always ask a nurse to step into the room when performing certain examinations and procedures.  They want a witness. I don't blame them.

But certainly putting an arm around a student's shoulders as a form of praise shouldn't place teachers in jeopardy.  Yet in today's litigious society, I would be very reluctant to do so. Although teachers may prevail, the psychological price they pay in defending themselves and the indelible stain left on their reputation are too great.  Anyone doubting this needs to revisit the McMartin Preschool scandal, which culminated in the longest and costliest criminal trial in American history. The defendants were acquitted in 1990, but they were broken people.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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