Lessons About Teachers and Students

August 08, 1993|By MIKE BOWLER

Ronald W. Price, the Anne Arundel County social studies teacher who admitted to having sex with as many as eight students (and is charged with three counts of child sex abuse) has thrown a few more logs on the bonfire of national concern over sexual harassment in schools.

The publicity surrounding the Price case and several others, combined with a report from the American Association of University Women purporting to have found a national "epidemic" of sexual harassment by both students and teachers, has put the education establishment on the defensive.

The next moves are predictable: written codes of sexual conduct in high schools, mandated courses in education schools on how to recognitize harassment and avoid it, bylaws forbidding teachers to touch students, malpractice insurance.

Plastic gloves?

Will litigation overwhelm education, just as it has overwhelmed medicine? For some years, the lawyers have been hovering around the edges. Sexual harassment is the ideal charge to be leveled against authority figures in a society in which the fault is always someone else's. In sexual harassment, there are seldom any physical marks. Seldom any witnesses. The damage is psychological. The cases often hinge on the student's word against the teacher's (or another student's).

But deep in the heart of the enterprise, the classroom teachers know what is happening. The veterans know that the Ronald Prices of education are few and far between and that there is no sudden epidemic of sexual harassment.

They learned lessons about sex in school from their first day on the job. Thirty years ago, I learned three of them in a few months of teaching English at a large suburban public high school.

* One of the three men in my car pool was gay. Over Christmas he took several of his students to see a play and stay overnight in New York. He was accused of fondling one of the boys. He simply disappeared, quietly dismissed at mid-year. There was no publicity, which is often the case in sex harassment cases (especially at private schools).

Lesson learned: Never, under any circumstances, let your libido overwhelm you.

* A senior, one of my best students, got a crush on me, started to hang around after school, wanting to talk. I consulted with a male teacher who'd become a friend and who'd been around for awhile. It's a common experience, he said. "What are you, six years older than she? It's perfectly normal. High school's all about the birds and the bees."

Lesson learned (and this was 30 years ago): Don't be alone for an extended time with a student of the opposite sex, especially if he or she has a crush on you.

* I did a very foolish thing. I gave three seniors, all young women, a ride after school to a nearby hamburger joint. One of the girls asked if she could smoke. I said yes. We were, after all, not on school grounds. I must have thought something like, "We're all adults now." Someone saw us and reported it to the principal, who called me in for a reprimand the next morning. "You knew better than to give the girls a ride," he said, "but what you really did wrong was allowing one of them to smoke."

Lesson learned: Never lower yourself to the level of the student; make the student come up to your level. Set an example.

* I learned a fourth lesson over a longer period. An untenured black male teacher in a nearby nearly all-white school was accused of harassment. He was exonerated in court, but he was not asked back and could not find a teaching job in the area.

Lesson: Teachers are supposed to be as moral as preachers. When one is even accused of going astray, his career in education can be ruined. It behooves the teacher, then, to follow the rules of common sense.

But it also behooves teachers not to be intimidated, and to resist and condemn the witch hunts that will follow the Price case and the AAUW report as surely as a spate of false claims followed the discovery earlier this summer of a needle in a Pepsi can.

Schools are places where language flies hot and heavy, as well it ought to. A lot of it is sexual, a lot of it is insulting. The trouble with the AAUW report is that everything counted -- from a leer to a rape.

And so 85 percent of all girls and 76 percent of boys said they'd been harassed in school. I suspect this is about the same percentage one would find in a supermarket or subway car. (It was the percentage for boys that made me realize this report was flawed.)

Similarly, schools are places where people touch. Some of the most effective teaching involves hugging, even kissing, and at a time when so many students come from unloving homes, a strong argument can be made that there should be more hugging in school, not less.

"The party line last year was: Don't touch your students," said a Baltimore City high school science teacher who asked not to be identified.

"I just disregarded it. I wanted to make my classes warmer. . . . I made the conscious decision that if they accuse me, so be it."

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