Are your kids safe from sexual misconduct in schools?

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Jan 13, 2018 at 11:40 PM

You send your children to school with trust that teachers and administrators are protecting them from harm, right?

A recent report by the Tennessee Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability says more needs to be done to protect the state’s students from faculty and staff members with a history of sexual misconduct.  

Some findings in the report may point to why USA Today gave Tennessee an F grade after a 2016 national investigation of educator sexual misconduct in schools. That study looked at each state’s efforts to reduce the chance that an employee with a history of sexual misconduct and assault could move from one school system to another.

The state’s report examined Tennessee’s policies and practices to determine areas of risk. It focused on state hiring practices, record-keeping for teacher licenses, relevant state laws and district policies about making school employees aware of expectations and responsibilities and what children are taught concerning safety.

The report found that each district in the state bears the primary responsibility for ensuring that school personnel are cleared to work with children. Some other states, however, place this responsibility at the state level.

Local districts all have policies and guidelines in place. In Washington County Schools, for example, policy states that “employees are expected to maintain professional and appropriate relationships with their students, colleagues, and the community.” Local school districts across Northeast Tennessee use background checks to prevent such conduct, according to officials. 

“We try to be vigilant as much as we can and be diligent to make sure we don’t have anyone with that history,” said Richard Van Huss, assistant director of Elizabethton City Schools. “Within that (employee) application, there are some specific questions about each individual and their history — if they have a felony, sexual misconduct or anything like that. For every employee we have, we complete a background check to see if there’s anything like that in their history.”

If an employee somehow managed to deceive officials about their past, that’s grounds for immediate termination and legal action, according to Joey Trent, chief operating officer for Elizabethton’s schools. And if a background check indicates that a prospective employee has lied on their application, their application will usually not be considered. 

Despite the efforts, allegations of impropriety have been documented in area schools. Recent cases have included:

• In November, a Sullivan South High School teacher was arrested on charges that he had taken inappropriate photos and videos of students.

• In August, a Unicoi County School System substitute teacher and band instructor was charged with two counts of statutory rape by an authority figure after an allegation of a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old Unicoi County High School student.

• In 2016, a Hawkins County elementary school teacher was arrested following accusations that she had a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old male Cherokee High School student. At the time, authorities said there was no official school connection between the teacher and the teen.

• In 2015, a Carter County School System substitute teacher was charged with sexual battery by an authority figure after a report of an alleged sexual assault on a student at Unaka High School.

• In 2013, a former Carter County teacher pleaded guilty to aggravated statutory rape and two counts solicitation of a minor after he was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a 16-year-old student.

As for student safety education, Trent said students should be frequently reminded to report any improper behavior immediately. 

“We try to encourage students that if they feel like they have issues, they need to report it if they feel they or another student is in danger,” he said. 

According to Peggy Campbell, assistant director of human resources for Carter County Schools, that system’s policies are similar. 

“If a student had a complaint, we would definitely take that seriously. Safety of our children is our No. 1 priority,” Campbell said. “I do not know who is not doing it correctly, but someone could come tomorrow (to see our hiring process) without any warning and I don’t think we’d have a single error.”

But one of the issues that the comptroller’s office has with the state’s guidelines on sexual misconduct between faculty and students is the lack of clarity as to what constitutes misconduct. The controversial reinstatement of Jennifer Collins, a Gray Elementary School teacher who had been dismissed from the Washington County system after allegations of improper hugging and forehead kissing, highlights the ambiguity. 

According to the Comptroller’s Office, “Tennessee law does not specifically define educator misconduct and district policies lack clarity about what constitutes educator sexual misconduct that involves students. In addition, Tennessee’s teacher code of ethics, included in state law, does not refer to appropriate boundaries between educators and students.” 

Much like other local districts, Johnson City Schools’ official guidelines state that any “appearance of impropriety shall be avoided” and prohibits sexual relationships or “excessive informal and social involvement” with students, but does not go into much additional detail. 

“We are very conscious about training our new teachers about how to avoid any appearance of impropriety,” Lee Patterson, Johnson City Schools’ human resources director, said. “We do try and stay ahead of it and train our teachers. We have high expectations about their interactions.”

This training coupled with the background check process helps give Johnson City Schools an atmosphere “where everybody feels comfortable,” according to Patterson. As far as the recent report, she said it shows the state as a whole is trying to move in the right direction and improve student safety statewide.

Though individual school districts often try to avoid hiring educators who have committed sexual misconduct in another district, the state report states that “inconsistencies at the State Board of Education in organizing and maintaining records concerning teacher misconduct could negatively affect the accuracy of data in the database that tracks the status of teacher licenses. The State Board is already working to improve its method of recordkeeping but may lack adequate staffing and capacity.”

Tennessee also has failed to address a provision in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act that specifically requires actions by states or districts to prevent teachers from obtaining employment in other districts following an act of sexual misconduct or assault, according to the comptroller’s office report.

To read the full report, visit the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability website at www.comptroller.tn.gov/orea.

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