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A Times Valley Edition Special Report : Chapter 11: Student Rights : Allegations Fly, and the Balance of Power Shifts

September 19, 1993|JOHN JOHNSON | Times Staff Writer

For one teacher at Northridge Middle School, campus reforms stop at his desk.

That's where he spends much of his time since a series of unfounded child-abuse allegations caused him to retreat from student contact.

After three separate investigations, each of which put him in fear of losing his job and his freedom, he changed his teaching methods, especially with girls.

"I'm very easy," he said. "I never get angry with them anymore."

Although this teacher's experience was worse than others, it reflects a common anxiety. Some teachers said the concern over protecting students from predatory adults has encouraged an open season on classroom instructors.

And, said one teacher who compared the experience of being investigated to something that goes on in a police state, teachers who ask the most of students are the ones most likely to be accused.

"The kids own the school. They run it," said this teacher, who was accused of leering at female students. Like several others, he asked not to be identified for fear of starting a new round of accusations.

He was eventually cleared. But not before suffering through torturous weeks during which the administration treated him like a child molester while his main accuser was believed implicitly, he added.

"I regret deeply going into the teaching profession," he said.

UTLA President Helen Bernstein said such fears are "very common" throughout Los Angeles schools. It has gotten to the point that teachers fear to hug a student, she said.

Beryl Ward understands teachers' fears that students can take potshots at them just to scare them, she said. But, "I've not seen that happen."

"It may sometimes be very unfortunate for teachers when students make these allegations," she said. "But it's important we investigate. We are adults, and we can handle it."

A generation ago, power on campus rested with adults. Most students never dared to accuse their teachers of doing anything wrong, and those who did were heavily outgunned by the teachers.

The national concern over child abuse and a wave of scandals in the Los Angeles Unified School District have changed everything, said Joe Luskin, an administrator in the district's middle schools unit.

"About eight to 10 years ago, there were a number of school district employees convicted of sexual abuse," Luskin said. "Other people on campus did not take the proper action, so we formalized everyone's responsibilities."

Now, students are made aware of their rights as early as elementary school. Each teacher at Northridge and elsewhere must sign a form every year stating that they are aware of their responsibilities to report incidents of abuse. The school administration must follow strict procedures whenever they receive a child-abuse report. If the incident is considered serious, police are called and an investigation is initiated.

Frank Eichorn said students these days are as knowledgeable about their rights as a jailhouse lawyer. "If you yell at them or give them a bad grade, two or three get together and say, 'He hit me.' "

As a result, the atmosphere has changed so dramatically that some teachers will walk right by an on-campus fight.

"We are taught in education school to separate them," said Gladys Kelly, who teaches English. "But some people will let a fight go because they're too nervous" to touch the combatants.

One teacher's nightmare began six years ago. A girl who was constantly clamoring for his attention thrust a piece of paper in his face while he was trying to bring a disorderly class under control.

He involuntarily waved his arm to get the paper out of his eyes and struck the girl's hand. She was holding a pencil, which punctured her skin. Shocked at the injury he caused, the teacher put his arm around the girl to comfort her. She ran off to the office and said he had molested her.

That set off a three-day investigation. The police were called. "I went through hell," he said quietly.

After several interrogations, he said, the girl admitted she lied and the matter was dropped. He was relieved, but his troubles were just beginning.

Two years later, the teacher was helping a girl with a lesson when she leaned back against his hand, which he had rested on the back of her chair to brace himself. She accused him of improperly touching her, and another investigation was launched.

After being cleared a second time, the teacher found out the girl had been molested three times. He also learned that she had seen the yearbook of another girl who had written the word "pervert" over the teacher's name as a result of the earlier incident.

The third time, a boy claimed the teacher beat him. He presented a torn shirt as proof.

"The police were here like that," the teacher said. During the ensuing weeklong investigation, he insisted repeatedly that he hadn't touched the kid. One night that week, the teacher stopped at McDonald's for dinner, and another boy walked up with a smirk on his face.

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