Our Opinion: Teachers obligated to report peers if they suspect sexual misconduct, hear student ‘rumors’

October 17th, 2016 7:23 pm - updated: 7:28 pm.

The names and circumstances might change, but the stomach-churning accusations sound strikingly familiar.

An area teacher or coach gets charged for supposedly engaging in an inappropriate and ultimately sexual relationship with a student.

It happened – again – in Wilkes-Barre last week, as prosecutors filed multiple corruption of minors charges against 36-year-old Robert J. Havard Jr., who had been serving as a Coughlin High School soccer coach. Havard, an elementary school teacher in the district, allegedly attended a 2008 house party at which he urged a 16-year-old girl to perform oral sex on him. Prosecutors say the coach, a high school teacher at the time of the alleged incident, had been texting and flirting with the girl for months prior to the encounter.

Havard, of course, might be innocent. That’ll be determined in the justice system; his preliminary hearing is set for Thursday.

Similar cases, however, crop up too frequently in Luzerne County and elsewhere to be dismissed as random, rare occurrences.

Area residents would be justified in questioning whether a cruddy culture in particular school buildings, even districts, allows this bad behavior to go undetected. They should pressure workers in our schools to be vigilant in policing their ranks.

A 2004 survey of eighth- to 11th-graders indicated that almost 7 percent, or nearly 3.5 million students, had unwanted sexual attention from an adult while at school, including touching and forced kissing.

“While predators are the adults who abuse, adult bystanders also contribute to an unsafe environment,” wrote educational leadership professor Charol Shakeshaft in a February 2013 article in Kappan Magazine. “When I talk with teachers in schools where an abuser has been arrested, I hear admissions that they had suspected something but, because they were not completely sure, did not want to say anything.”

Teachers must speak up. Likewise, they have an obligation to take seriously students’ chatter about possible educator sexual misconduct. “All rumors should be investigated,” states a brochure titled “Recognizing and Reporting Sexual Misconduct Under the Educator Discipline Act.”

The brochure, a publication of Pennsylvania’s Professional Standards and Practices Commission, encourages teachers and administrators to be on the lookout for the following potentially telltale behaviors of adults who engage in sexual misconduct.

• Spending more time with children than other adults.

• Fostering close personal relationships with students.

• Singling out students for special attention or privileges.

• Making off-color remarks in class.

• Engaging in peer-like behavior with students.

• Giving gifts to students.

• Oversharing personal information with students.

• Spending time alone with students.

• Exchanging personal notes, texts, emails or other communications with students.

• Engaging in flirtatious behavior with students.

If you have concerns about a school staffer’s behavior, report it.

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