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More Guidance for Teachers

November 11, 2003

The ruling in a recent student molestation case offered some much-needed support for teachers who have been afraid to pat a child on the back lest they draw suspicion. But the state's 4th District Court of Appeal swung the pendulum too far, encouraging a see-no-evil ethic among teachers. Yes, schools should restore an atmosphere of friendly warmth in which teachers don't have to report each other for hugging a crying child. But it defies common sense for teachers to see nothing strange about a 50-year-old man giving a 17-year-old girl a gift certificate to a lingerie shop.

The girl's parents sued the Anaheim Union High School District after they found love letters in her room. The girl's relationship with the middle-aged teacher started with sexual touching when she was 13 and turned into an affair after she turned 15. He spent 13 months in prison.

The court rejected the parents' civil suit, saying that administrators and other teachers were unaware of the romantic relationship and therefore bore no liability.

It's not a teacher's or principal's job to ferret out such relationships, the court ruled, adding, "Teachers would be forced to be spies on their fellow teachers, with pain of discipline if they didn't. Mandatory tattling. No hugging ever. No being in the same room alone, ever.... No gifts ever."

That's the right spirit, up to a point. The court admitted, though, that to miss the signs in this case, teachers had to be "clueless." A track coach saw the teacher give the girl a $50 gift certificate to Victoria's Secret. On many occasions, other teachers saw this teacher drive off from school with the girl in his car, knowing there was a rule against faculty giving students rides. In the presence of another teacher, this teacher described her as his girlfriend. He intervened with a history teacher to change her grade.

Does a molester have to stand in the middle of the hallway, screaming, "I'm breaking the law!" for teachers to notice that something is amiss? This "anything goes" ruling gives little useful guidance to teachers -- and no protection at all to children. Yet as a published ruling, it has the power of legal precedent. The family plans to appeal. The state Supreme Court should put more finesse into this controversial arena where strong, common-sense guidelines are needed.

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