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Teacher Sexual Misconduct: Grappling with the Gray Areas

The Washington Post ran a lengthy front page story last weekend about Kevin Ricks, who was a high school teacher and sexual predator for almost 30 years. The article certainly provides fodder for Law and Order's ripped-from-the-headlines plots. The events are indeed disturbing: How could someone so dangerous have victimized so many people and escaped notice for so long?

Yet, as a former high school teacher, I have to say the story raised a lot of questions for me about why sexual misconduct is such a thorny issue for schools—and teachers.

Lacking hard evidence and being hesitant to deal with the inevitable mess that would ensue from investigating him, school after school let Ricks go, without so much as a mark on his record, leaving him free to teach in another district. But hindsight is 20-20, and it's easy to say now that the schools failed by letting Ricks slip through the cracks. Perhaps these schools were negligent, but schools have a difficult balance to strike: They also need to be cautious about potentially tainting a teacher's record with an unproven allegation that could destroy his or her career. Without minimizing the horrific nature of Ricks's alleged crimes, it's important to remember that the majority of teachers have committed their lives to the safety and well-being of children, and they can be ruined by an investigation suggesting they have improper relationships with students.

And teachers are well aware of how easy it is for students to accuse them of sexual misconduct. Most teachers are careful to avoid putting themselves in a situation that could be misconstrued. The uncharted territory of today's technology, however, creates a whole new gray area for teacher-student interactions: It offers both opportunities to connect with students and traps that can entangle teachers in unending conflict.

Some schools require teachers to carry cellphones so students can call them at any time for help. Other schools warn teachers against giving out personal cellphone numbers or e-mail addresses. Some teachers have had great success engaging students through social media. Others have been forbidden to contact students through Facebook.

So teachers get conflicting messages: Reach out! Connect with your students! Building relationships is essential to successful teaching! And at the same time: Don't touch! Keep your distance! Preventing students from suing you is essential to successful teaching! Both messages are true, to an extent.

There's little question that Ricks crossed the line in his relationships with students, long before he ever touched them: He repeatedly took students out to dinner, to movies, and to his house to play video games. He joined students' youth groups; followed students to work; offered to take them on trips; bought them expensive gifts; and sent them frequent messages through Facebook and Myspace.

The question is how can schools distinguish between this sort of contact and more innocent and constructive student-teacher relationships?

It would be a start if schools established coherent and well-communicated rules for student-teacher interactions. There are legitimate reasons for teachers to see students outside of school, for example, but teachers might be required to notify an administrator when doing so. Schools also need firm guidelines on digital interaction with students: Is it OK for teachers to be Facebook "friends" with students? Instant message with students? Give out their home phone number? In what situations are online communications appropriate? Schools should make a policy and make it known, and, since technology is constantly changing the ways people interact with each other, allow the policy to evolve.

In Ricks's case, according to the Post, "School systems said they couldn't act because they lacked evidence, even after warnings surfaced that Ricks was trouble, or they didn't dig deep enough to find proof."

A code of conduct for teacher-student interactions might make it easier for schools to follow up on suspicious behavior. It would at least provide a concrete reason for a school to take action, without unnecessarily damaging a good teacher's reputation.

Update: Ricks was first arrested on Feb. 18, 2010 on charges of molesting a student. According to a new story in the Washington Post, he was charged in federal court on child pornography counts on July 28. The Post reports that officials said the charges were brought to keep Ricks in jail until his plea hearing on state charges, scheduled for Thursday, July 29, occurs. The Post story includes a video of a parent talking about her experience bringing Ricks to the attention of his principal.

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