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Can Teachers Ever Hug Students?

April 17, 2006

By Eric Frazier, The Charlotte Observer, N.C.

Apr. 15–When Greg Harris started teaching sixth-graders, older co-workers told him about the lines no male teacher should cross.

Don’t be alone with female students. Don’t give students rides home. And no hugging.

With more cases of teacher-student sexual contact and assault landing in headlines and courtrooms, experts say educators need more guidance.

While suspected sexual predators attract heavy media attention, experts say many cases involve emotionally fragile teachers who simply don’t know where to draw the line.

“We don’t do enough training in this area,” said Jerry Painter, a Washington state lawyer who handles teacher misconduct complaints.

Area school districts say they supply enough guidance already. Virtually all have no-sex-with-students policies.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ policy, which one national expert called “excellent,” specifically bars employees from asking students for kisses or dates, or doing anything else that encourages a romantic relationship.

School districts also said they offer employee briefings at least once a year to go over the rules, including an N.C. law that makes it a felony for a teacher to have intimate physical contact with a student — even a student who has reached the age of consent.

Those precautions, coupled with the common sense and professionalism of teachers, should be enough, schools say.

But others who study the issue disagree.

Though no one has documented the trend statistically, researchers see strong anecdotal evidence that more cases of teacher sexual misconduct are being reported.

Just Friday, The Associated Press reported on a 49-year-old Brunswick County teacher and a 22-year-old Buncombe County teacher who were criminally charged with engaging in sexual activity with students.

The rising trend is readily apparent in legal reports on court cases that have cropped up across the country, said Robert Shoop, a professor of educational law at Kansas State University.

“There’s a significant increase in the number reported and the number that wind up in court,” said Shoop, who serves as an expert witness on the subject. “It’s just now getting national attention.”

A string of recent incidents has pushed the issue into the spotlight locally.

Since January, at least six Charlotte-area teachers have been accused of sexually assaulting students. All but one have been arrested. The furor after the arrest of Jimmie Grubbs, a former middle school teacher in Huntersville, prompted Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools interim Superintendent Frances Haithcock to order employees to report teachers or anyone else who abuses a student to child welfare officials.

School officials in CMS, Cabarrus County, Union County and Rock Hill said they had no plans for additional teacher training on relationships with students.

“We feel like we have the right things in place,” said Jeanette Trexler, spokesperson for the Cabarrus County schools, “and we hope we have the right people who adhere to them.”

Teachers “are aware of the rules,” said Elaine Baker, spokesperson for Rock Hill schools. “They are aware of the relationships they should have with students. It’s all part of being a professional.”

CMS officials say their policy is comprehensive and tough enough. After hearing the CMS policy, Charol Shakeshaft, a Hofstra University professor and one of the country’s leading experts on the subject, called it an excellent one.

“By and large, people know what’s right and wrong,” said Anthony Bucci, assistant superintendent of student, family and community services for CMS. Teachers having sex with students “is clearly exceptional in the extreme and aberrant.”

But interviews with teachers suggest even good ones are affected by the issue. When unsure of what’s appropriate, many simply steer clear.

“Good teachers can lose their licenses,” said Harris, now a Charlotte-based consultant for the N.C. Association of Educators.

Researchers who study educator-misconduct cases say school systems need to offer specific training on practical issues, such as appropriate touching. Misunderstandings between teachers and children can easily lead to false allegations.

“Most educators are caring, compassionate people, but they are in a state of denial about this,” said Shoop, the Kansas State University professor.

“They can’t even imagine someone doing this, so they say, ‘Why should we spend half a day talking about it when none of us will ever do it?’ “

Nationally, about 10 percent of U.S. schoolchildren in grades eight to 11 reported that they had been the target of unwanted sexual misconduct by an educator, according to the 2000 report compiled for the U.S. Department of Education.In North Carolina, 40 allegations of sexual misconduct — most involving students — were leveled against teachers in 2004, said Harry Wilson, an attorney with the N.C. Board of Education. Over the past five years, the number has hovered at about three dozen annually.

Most ended with the teacher losing his or her license, Wilson said.

The cases, and the publicity they generate, have put teachers on guard.

Pamela Hemphill, a retired CMS teacher and former school administrator, said she never drove male students anywhere when she taught middle school, unless she had another female in the car. She feared she could be sued if a false allegation were made against her.

“I would not want to put myself in that predicament,” she said. “You have to be very careful.”

CMS doesn’t have a policy saying teachers and students can’t be alone one-on-one, said LaTarzja Henry, a school district spokesperson. Principals give them guidance, though, about appropriate behaviors.

Dot Cromwell, president of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Association of Educators, said a teacher might want to hug a struggling child or give a reassuring touch, but might think better of it.

“It’s just a changing society,” she said. “We’re constantly reminding teachers to keep it professional.”

Painter, chief legal counsel with a teachers’ union in Washington state, spent more than a dozen years representing teachers in sexual misconduct cases. Now he gives presentations to school districts about specific precautions educators can take.

While he has dealt with pedophiles “who are just disgusting,” he found that more often, teachers who transgressed were well-meaning educators, often young ones, whose passion for helping children took them on one too many home visits or after-school meetings.

He trains teachers, for instance, to avoid giving full frontal hugs to girls in fourth grade. He tells them to limit touches to students’ shoulder or mid-upper back.

Painter stressed that when districts outline what is a “good touch,” those who touch students in other ways “stick out like a sore thumb, and your supervisor is able to catch it before it goes anywhere.”

Sandy Whitesides, a Mecklenburg resident with a 15-year-old son and a 9-year-old daughter, said parents have to be more vigilant.

“It’s a parent’s responsibility now to make sure they understand the circumstances and that they know the adult that (their child) is with and not take for granted that everything’s going to be OK,” she said. “It’s our job now, unfortunately, to dig a little deeper.”

TEACHERS IN TROUBLE: Hubert Thomas “Tony” Byrum, 52, a teacher and coach at Rock Hill High, was arrested in January in connection with allegations that he put his hand down a female student’s shirt during a previous teaching stint in Union County schools.

–Jimmie Vance Grubbs, 66, a former teacher at Bradley Middle School in Huntersville, was arrested in February after several students accused him of sexual misconduct at the school and during trips to Myrtle Beach.

–Isaiah Dewitte Oglesby, 26, a former teacher at North Rowan Middle School, was arrested in March after a 14-year-old girl told authorities he committed a sex crime against her during an afternoon class session. Police said she was alone with Oglesby at the time.

–Robert Marquise Williams, 28, an assistant teacher at Hunter Huss High in Gaston County, was arrested last month after police said the former high school football star coaxed a 17-year-old girl to have sex with him in a car on school property.

–A 24-year-old Waddell High School teacher resigned last month after police said she’d had sex with an 18-year-old senior at a southwest Charlotte apartment. She wasn’t immediately charged with a crime.

–Michael Ray McDonald, 38, a former teacher at Mount Pleasant Middle School in Cabarrus County, was arrested last month and accused of sexual misconduct with a student more than a decade ago.

Staff Writers Aimee Juarez, Emily Achenbaum, Deborah Hirsch and Gail Smith-Arrants contributed.

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