Since January there have been 28 accusations, arrests, charges, convictions and surrendered certificates of Virginia school educators who had sexual relationships with students. Seventeen of those cases involved computers or cell phones. In all, about 200 teaching certifications in the last 10 years have been revoked after allegations of abuse were brought forward.
A consequence of educators’ and pupils’ embrace of the latest technology is the ease at which clandestine student-educator relationships can develop and progress. Texting, social networking and email can erode a middle- or high-school educator’s more traditional supportive role into that of a personal confidant — or worse, a sexual partner, erasing the boundaries of appropriate behavior between teacher and pupil.
Charol Shakeshaft, now a professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, reported in her 2004 nationwide study, “Educator Sexual Misconduct,” that “9.6 percent of students are targets of educator sexual misconduct” at some point during their school careers.
In Virginia, 9.6 percent equals thousands of students. That constitutes an abuse crisis.
As a result, the Virginia Board of Education adopted and approved “Guidelines for the Prevention of Sexual Misconduct and Abuse in Virginia Public Schools” for the purpose of helping local school boards implement procedures that “deter misconduct, provide accountability, and establish clear and reasonable boundaries for interactions among students and teachers, other school board employees, and adult volunteers” before a crime is committed.
The document — intended as guidelines and not policy — is welcome and needed. For years school jurisdictions had no defined directives for dealing with sexual abuse by school employees, which in some localities became endemic. Educators may have had gut feelings that another employee was crossing the line but there was no clear means of reporting, nor did they desire to get a fellow employee in trouble.
Today’s education culture frequently suggests that teachers act less as authority figures and more as counselors and mentors. Yesterday’s knuckle-busting nun and spinster schoolmarm have been replaced by an admittedly small percentage of educators tempted to get sexually involved with pupils. It could be a well-meaning young adviser who doesn’t just teach but counsels and motivates; who’s flattered by the flirtatious attention of young students and eventually distributes cell numbers and email addresses in case after-hours tutoring is required.
The darker end of that spectrum is the sexual predator that goes into teaching for the sole purpose of abusing students.
This was the case of Manassas English teacher and serial abuser Kevin Ricks, which played a key role in developing the guidelines. A Washington Post investigation uncovered a pattern of abuse dating back to 1978, during which Ricks passed undetected from one teaching system to the next, molesting young boys. Ricks was enabled by school officials who suspected his behavior but simply didn’t want to trouble themselves with confronting him. Ricks was recently convicted on child pornography charges and sentenced to 25 years in prison, mostly because of the untiring efforts of a victim’s mother.
As for the disparity between male and female abuse convictions, Shakeshaft notes that while female educators are responsible for about one-third of the allegations, they have a lower conviction rate because of the reluctance of male pupils to press charges. She says, however: “There is no difference in the way the courts treat female abusers [from males],” as a Russell County woman discovered in April when she was sentenced to 22 years in prison for sending a sexual text to a 14-year-old boy.
Charles Pyle, director of communications for the state Department of Education, says the guidelines are intended to define boundaries between teacher and pupil, not create barriers. “In the past, the risk of being caught was a deterrent,” he says, but the proliferation of personal electronic devices created the need for school divisions to ensure transparency in their use and establish boundaries to deal with suspected misconduct before a crime is committed.
Many educators claim the guidelines are unnecessary. Some claim (correctly) that a small number of educators are abusers, and that common sense and in-house procedures will contain them. Valerie Kibler, director of the Virginia Association of Journalism Teachers and Advisers, told Williamsburg’s Virginia Gazette that “news reports about teachers having affairs with students are anomalies.” She intimated that the guidelines are insulting and “will not stop sexual predators.”
The excessive number of abuse cases appearing just this year, however, indicates that common sense isn’t always similarly shared. Did an Amherst bus driver exercise common sense when he cornered and allegedly touched a 10-year-old on his bus? How about the former Chesapeake teacher arrested for allegedly texting a photograph of his genitals to an underage girl’s phone?
Advanced technologies may facilitate 21st-century learning, but among the small percentage of educators vulnerable to student electronic exchanges, they can too easily facilitate private relationships. Adherence to the guidelines by local school districts is a good start. But the secret to maintaining a safe academic environment for students has little to do with cell phones or computers, but good old-fashioned parental involvement, critical thinking, community support and, especially, teacher competence and their respect for “clear and reasonable” boundaries.
Dale Brumfield is a writer and payroll services broker who lives in Doswell.
Opinions expressed are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.