Students’ safety, teachers’ rights

by Jim Longworth

Last week a firestorm of controversy erupted in the Winston-Salem Forsyth schools when district attorney Jim O’Neill and the SBI launched an investigation into whether school officials, in particular attorney Drew Davis, had failed to report allegations of sexual misconduct to police in a timely manner. The school board subsequently and swiftly suspended Davis with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.

Apparently O’Neill’s concerns were triggered by a case involving a teacher at Wiley Middle school in May of this year. Particulars of the case aside, O’Neill’s crusade is really about process and procedure.

The State Board of Education’s policy on these matters seems straightforward, yet it is also open to interpretation.

It requires principals who have personal knowledge of a criminal offense occurring on school grounds to “immediately report the act to the appropriate law enforcement agency.”

There are two problems. First, criminal offenses can range from gun possession to sexual misconduct. And while gun possession is a clear and verifiable infraction, a principal may not have seen or have personal knowledge of misconduct. The other problem involves interpretation of what an act means.

In a statement emailed to me, Superintendent Dr.Don Martin said, “An act can be interpreted to mean allegations of an act, or it can be interpreted to mean an actual act, and that requires someone to ask questions to see if an act actually occurred before he reports it.”

Martin’s explanation and his process seem fair and logical. If a student or parent comes to a principal and says, “My daughter’s teacher kissed her on the mouth,” then the principal can call his supervisor or the superintendent who in turn would notify the school attorney. One or more of that group would question the teacher, then the attorney can advise as to whether the matter has merit enough to refer to the police. In the meantime, a parent always has the option to bypass the school and file charges on their own.

O’Neill, however, does not want alleged offenders questioned by school officials at all. Instead, he wants the matter immediately turned over to authorities so that charges can be brought if warranted. That sounds okay in principal until you consider what can happen to a teacher who turns out to have been falsely accused. Absent an internal investigation by school officials, that teacher essentially goes directly from class room to courtroom, expends a fortune in legal fees and has his personal and professional reputation permanently tarnished.

Yes there are increasing numbers of teachers and coaches nationwide being convicted of inappropriate contact with students. And yes, there are times when, facing the possibility of a scandal, a guilty teacher might resign so she can move to another district and get a job without anyone knowing her baggage. There’s also the problem of back-room deals in which schools waive prosecution if the guilty party agrees to move away. That practice is referred to in education circles as “passing the trash.” That’s why the Oregon state legislature passed a law last year which prohibits school officials from entering into any agreement that would suppress information related to child abuse or sexual misconduct. It is a good law, and one that North Carolina should adopt.

Still, unless there is a case in which a student is in imminent danger, I cannot support a process that excludes and prohibits school officials from asking questions of the accused party. Without such preliminary questioning, the lives and careers of innocent teachers can be ruined, or worse. Case in point: a Roanoke, Virginia teacher who was falsely accused in 2005 of sexual abuse. He was eventually exonerated, but not before he committed suicide because of the shame and stress incurred from an over eager prosecutor. Such mistakes are not rare. In his book Elusive Innocence, author Doug Tong reported that 71 percent of accusations of sexual abuse by male teachers are false.

That data in no way excuses or justifies secret deals, passing the trash or obstruction of justice involving teachers who are guilty of sex crimes. In fact, any adult convicted of taking liberties with a minor should be thrown under the jail for a long time. But so far as Winston Salem is concerned, the district attorney and the SBI need to take a step back and let Police Chief Cunningham, Sheriff Shatzman, SROs and Superintendent Martin and his principals work together to craft an approach that will protect students and deal with teachers in every conceivable situation. Such a summit would serve a much more constructive purpose than seeking retroactive punishment of school officials who may have failed to adhere to an ambiguous statute. Right now we need more solutions, not more victims.

Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Fridays at 6:30 a.m. on ABC 45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 10 p.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).