Don’t touch students. Don’t give them rides home. And never, never answer their love letters.
Those were among the tips given to hundreds of Spokane educators by an attorney who says he might represent them one day if they don’t follow his advice.
Spokane School District 81 officials were surprised when they planned a voluntary seminar dubbed “the improper touching workshop” - and 400 teachers and administrators enrolled.
They listened intently earlier this week as Jerry Painter, a Washington Education Association attorney, taught them to avoid charges of sexual misconduct.
Seemingly innocent gestures, such as an encouraging pat on the back or a card sent to a struggling student, can be misunderstood, throwing a teacher into a legal battle, Painter warned.
“What they’re going to say is you found the most vulnerable student in your class and exploited that vulnerability,” Painter said.
Sexual misconduct has cost District 81 plenty of money. Last year, a former student was awarded $100,000 after saying she had sex with a former choir director at Lewis and Clark High School.
Such situations occur far too often and embarrass good teachers, says Lynn Jones, president of the Spokane Education Association. “Every time we get done with one (case), another seems to arise, either in our district or a nearby district.”
Painter had a load of advice to stop the trend.
A teacher who sends a card to one student should send a card to all students, he said.
Smart teachers also avoid spending time alone with students, or offering rides, Painter said. If teachers “absolutely must” give a student a ride, take more than one student. Even better, take a parent.
When one-on-one meetings can’t be avoided, keep all doors open and stay as visible to outsiders as possible, he said.
Teachers are in danger when students become obsessed with them or think they’ve met the adult of their dreams, Painter said.
Don’t answer their love notes, not even to let them down gently, he said. A teacher’s answer can be misunderstood and used as evidence in court.
Get a witness immediately by showing any love letters to a responsible adult, he said.
Take great pains to treat male and female students equally, Painter said. Use both male and female assistants.
Teachers who sign girls’ yearbooks with “Love,” should sign boys’ yearbooks the same way. Better yet, sign “Affectionately yours.”
Painter acknowledged some of his advice sounds harsh and cold, but said the risks to teachers are real.
He distributed pamphlets warning that accusations of sexual misconduct with students are the most common reason school employees lose their jobs.
“As unrealistic as it may seem, even touching elementary students for purposes of praise, reward or support should be carefully considered in today’s climate of public hysteria over sexual abuse in public schools,” one pamphlet said.
Painter cautioned teachers about touching young girls on the shoulder once they begin wearing bras, because it could offend them.
The guidelines are important but disheartening for teachers, said Jones. They make teaching trickier than ever.
“If a student’s upset … your tendency is to comfort them in some way,” said Jones, a former physical education teacher. “In our society, we do that by touching.”
The seminar proved so popular the district is planning another one in March. Painter gives the presentation at districts around the state, also addressing corporal punishment and religion in schools.
Painter also warned teachers about situations in which they’re the ones with the big crush.
“Until they have graduated and turned 18, you may not have sex with them.”
Painter said he’s never heard a teacher give a legitimate reason for wanting to have sex with a former student. Critics, he said, might even accuse the teacher of “grooming” the student for a relationship after graduation.
The bottom line? “If you really feel you must, wait at least two years, or marry them,” Painter said. “If you do not, your certificate is on the line.”
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