I have never been accused of misconduct as a teacher, but four different times I have suffered alongside colleagues who were accused and investigated (while being cast aside), then exonerated — but left saddled with a besmirched reputation. In two of those four cases, a sizable lawyer bill ensued.
Three of these colleagues were classroom teachers; one was a local school custodian. The three teachers, though exonerated, left the field of education. As one of them put it, “I was so full of woundedness and hurt that I had no room for anger.”
Not only did I suffer with my three colleagues; I also got into a bit of trouble for coming to their defense and was subsequently told to hush. I seldom get upset, except for one thing: seeing people mistreated. During each of those three cases — the ongoing months of investigation and the final ruling of not guilty — my mind raced repeatedly to the black children and teenagers who walked from town, passing my childhood home, to get to a shack that nobody should call a school building. I rode a nice bus into town to a nice school.
Perhaps it’s a slight stretch to compare the episodic treatment of individuals to the centuries-old treatment of a race of people, but mistreatment is mistreatment.
To be fair to school boards and school administrators, we must acknowledge the heavy responsibility they bear in trying to do what is right when educators are accused of misconduct, particularly sexual misconduct or any type of abuse. Their job is not easy.
Truth be known, however, teachers, coaches, and principals have for years — not just recently — lived and worked under the cloud of potential false charges made by students. They, too, bear an ever-present, distracting responsibility, particularly young male teachers who are more often than not idolized by the girls.
Interestingly enough, my own recognition of how circumspect and careful a teacher must be came when I was 23. That was a long time before society became so litigious, but as a first-year teacher, I learned a big lesson.
In the junior high school where I was teaching, the male custodian and I became very good friends. He was very well-liked by teachers and students. At the time, I was living with our principal, a bachelor who was also a very close friend. One evening, the principal informed me that a female student in one of my classes had accused our friend, the custodian, of touching her improperly.
My thoughts turned instantly, not to my custodian friend’s predicament, but to the identity of the girl. Being a consummate professional, the principal did not give me her name. Suffice it to say that when the ordeal was over, the identity of the 14-year-old accuser was not surprising. The custodian was placed on leave for two weeks, the accuser eventually recanted, and all was well except, of course, for the custodian’s embarrassment and the giggles and looks he received for a while from junior high students.
Not all situations are this simple. Of the three classroom teachers mentioned above, the one male was a special education teacher with an impeccable reputation. He too was accused of touching. It so happens that I knew his student accuser well. Again, no surprise. The accuser was a mischievous male. This particular teacher was taken out of the school, given a clerical job, and after several weeks of investigation, was exonerated also. This young man was told that because he was in the field of special education, he could not return to the same school. Finding his options onerous, he left the school system and chose to leave teaching.
Females are not exempt from false accusations either. The two young females referred to above were stellar teachers and highly-regarded individuals. They, too, were assumed guilty until proven innocent. They, too, left the profession.
No doubt, school system personnel officials are bedeviled by the sensitive nature of the problem, and no one should minimize the difficult job they have or the amount of wisdom their job requires.
However, the pattern of jerking teachers or principals out of their schools, subjecting them to embarrassment and taking actions that ostensibly assume their guilt is most egregious. Whether the charge is sexual abuse, failure to report alleged abuse, or anything else, educators deserve better treatment than we have recently seen.
What the public should realize is that most of these cases don’t reach the newspapers. Around the country educators have been enduring such mistreatment for decades. It should stop.
Roger Hines of Kennesaw is a retired high school teacher.