Spontaneity dies in chilly climate following Price

MICHAEL OLESKER

August 29, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

A friend of mine says he read a stunning story in the newspaper the other day: Several teachers at Northeast High School, in Anne Arundel County, were discovered not having sex with their students.

It's a joke, see? Jokes are little comic candles we light, in lieu of letting the darkness intimidate us. Everyone not making Michael Jackson sex abuse jokes these days makes Northeast High School sex abuse jokes. Thus, this friend of mine says they're doing a made-for-TV movie about Northeast High: "Close Encounters of the 10th Grade."

Everybody chuckles when they hear my friend's little jokes, unless they're humorless souls who happen to have kids attending Northeast High. Or kids attending any high school. Or any school. Or just kids, whether or not they've shared an innocent bed with Michael Jackson.

Grown-ups are a little edgy these days on the subject of friendliness with young people. Agreed, it's a little weird for Michael Jackson to have an 11-year-old boy sleeping in the same bed with him, even if they slept on opposite sides of the bed, and even if the bed was as big as the Queen Mary.

Forget Michael Jackson. Where, exactly, do the rest of us draw the line between affection and intimacy? And, do we have to back off normal, friendly instincts for fear of having someone mistake us and call in the vice squad?

Such questions hung in the air Thursday night. There were 350 incoming ninth-graders attending orientation at Northeast High, where three teachers lately have been accused of having sexual relations with their students and nobody knows what to believe in two of the cases.

The incoming ninth-graders said their biggest concern was finding their way to their classrooms. Their parents said they worried about the kids being teased. They said this to reporters gathered outside the school, who were there not precisely because ninth-grade orientation is such a terrific news story.

This is purely about this sex business, about the former teacher Ronald Price catching up on his youth with a bunch of teen-age girls, and two other teachers now facing their own sex charges. In this country, when we don't make jokes, we make movies. Price has sold his story to a film company, a prospect which makes the skin crawl.

If all teachers at Northeast High are now careful to keep a certain distance from all students, their concern will be reflected at every school in the area, and isn't likely to go away too quickly.

A week after classes start, Ronald Price will go on trial, having already admitted he had sexual relationships with eight young ,, women while they were his students. Later next month, trial is scheduled for a female teacher at Northeast, charged with sexual child abuse of a male student. No trial date has yet been set for another Northeast male teacher accused of child sex abuse.

BTC What's troubling is not merely what this will do to teachers, though that's troubling enough. A distance will have to be kept. Once, we looked up to teachers who took special interest in a troubled kid. We gave citations to those who stayed after school to offer special assistance and asked ourselves, Why can't every teacher show such devotion? In the current climate, such devotion is cause for suspicion.

Now, teachers will want third parties in the room, other teachers or other students, the way doctors make certain a nurse is in the room during examinations. They'll want validation that no wayward gestures have been made, no innuendoes beyond acceptable friendliness. And the kids, plugged into the same media accounts as adults, are now doing their own second-guessing: Is this teacher a pal, or is there a hidden venue? (Or, more deviously: Do I get that passing grade I want, or do I threaten to press charges?)

Such possibilities now go beyond the classroom, to the rest of us: We've been cautioned to avoid innocent, spontaneous affection. You want a witness in the room, preferably an attorney, before you embrace a kid.

Any adult "too" nice to a child is now automatically suspect. A moratorium has been placed on hugs. There's the real reason to loathe Ronald Price: Not merely for abusing teen-age girls, though that's sick enough; and not merely for wishing to cash in on it, though that's despicable beyond reason.

It's that, in the current climate he's helped create, all innocent, spontaneous affection is now guilty until proven innocent.

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