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Virginia Journal of Education

Steering Clear

How to avoid situations that can make educators susceptible to false charges of improper behavior.

It’s every educator’s worst nightmare: A false allegation of inappropriate behavior with a student. Seemingly innocent scenarios have managed to ruin reputations and careers in schools across the U.S., including here in Virginia. And, despite the secure feelings of many school employees, it can happen to anyone, especially in today’s litigious climate.

Once an accusation is made, there is no taking it back. And there may be no getting your reputation back either, even after you’ve been cleared.

Here is some advice for avoiding bogus accusations of improper behavior, adapted from the VEA Office of Legal Services and the NEA publication “Teach But Don’t Touch”:

Don’t fly solo. If at all possible, avoid being alone with a student. Accusations made when there are no witnesses can put you in a very difficult spot. To protect yourself, don’t be alone with a student in a home or car, and don’t give students rides home. If you can’t help being alone with a student in a classroom, keep your door open and stay in plain sight.

Keep it professional. Have clear boundaries about your personal life. Never send e-mails to students that don’t pertain specifically to schoolwork. Don’t give gifts, unless you’re giving one to every student. Don’t socialize with students, don’t treat them as friends, and don’t “friend” them on Facebook. Don’t text students – you won’t have control over when or how they answer or whether they continue sending texts.  Absolutely no flirting or joking or teasing about sex. Try not to single out students for excessive encouragement or rewards, as this can be misconstrued. Don’t comment on students’ appearance and avoid discussing details of your private life. Working at school is your job, and you cannot act like one of the kids.

Also, if a student confides any information to you leading you to believe that either abuse or suicide could be an issue, it’s your responsibility to pass that information along to someone at your school, such as a guidance counselor. Documenting that you’ve done so is a good idea, too. While this may be a challenge, try not to become emotionally entangled in the situation.
Hands off. This is also a difficult subject, especially when dealing with students in elementary school who may seek physical comfort from a teacher, but a good general rule is not to touch students.  Common sense may prevail in some situations: an occasional hug for an early elementary student, or a high-five or fist-bump to acknowledge a job well done for an older student is usually OK.
A “no-touch” policy can be especially important for male educators. Because men are far more apt to be accused of inappropriate contact with students than women are, caution needs to be the watchword. Where a female teacher’s touch may be interpreted as comforting, a male teacher’s can be seen as suggestive. Females still must be careful, however.
Be careful with “troubled” students. This is yet another area of difficulty, because students with emotional needs and chronic problems are often the ones you want to reach out to the most. While it is good to express concern and compassion, do not allow such students to treat you as a counselor. If you become too involved, your efforts may lead to the student developing an infatuation or dependence. That kind of attention from a student can feel flattering, but it’s dangerous. Refer troubled students to educators who have the training to best help them, such as guidance counselors or school psychologists. Again, this can be walking a fine line because educators often choose to be educators because of their sincere love for young people.
Some jobs are even riskier than others. Some educators, such as coaches, performing arts teachers and publications advisers, may be at an increased risk of false accusations. This may be due to the often-intense nature of the activities, as well as more contact with students after school, on weekends and away from school. If you’re in one of these kinds of jobs, be even more conscious of maintaining your boundaries.
Use “no-contact” discipline. Don’t touch or grab a misbehaving student; use verbal commands or other types of discipline whenever possible. When a situation has the potential to be dangerous, Virginia law allows you to use physical force to protect yourself and others and to prevent injury. If you find yourself in this kind of situation, use as little force as possible and immediately get help.



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