Common sense rules to prevent
false claims of harassment or abuse

Avoid the following:

• Sending written communications, including e-mails or instant messages, to students

• Giving gifts to students

• Socializing with students in situations that could be misconstrued as personal or romantic

• Making phone calls to a student’s home or cell phone, unless it is solely to speak to a parent

 

Although you may think that claims or allegations of harassment or abuse could never be made against you, you should understand that false allegations and claims are made against education employees frequently. No one is immune. While it is impossible to eliminate all risk, there are steps you can take to reduce the risks.

Avoid being alone with a student of either gender. Problematic situations include after-school detention, keeping a student in for recess, make-up tests and tutoring. Arrange to have the activity within sight of another adult, and ask him or her to observe your work with the student. If you must be alone with a student, sit near the door with the door open so you can be observed.

Avoid physical contact with students that could be misunderstood as sexual in nature. Whenever possible, keep your own “personal space.” If younger students try to hug you, tell them that it is polite to ask permission before they hug or touch you. Whenever possible, ask the student’s permission before touching him or her. Develop a repertoire for reinforcing student behavior and giving praise without touching students.

Young teachers often get involved in or are accused of improper relationships with students, especially high school students. Even though only a few years may separate the teacher and student, it is important that the adult draw the line in the relationship. In addition, athletic coaches and performance-related teachers (drama, band, debate) have a similar problem. In these positions, the common factor is off-campus access. Teachers in these areas also have to be more vigilant of their behavior when with students.

Work with your district, school or department to establish guidelines for touching students.

Avoid off-the-cuff comments with suggestive or double entendre overtones. Students may report your remarks in ways that distort your meaning. Never tease, demean or ridicule a student, even if you feel that you are only joking. Do not be drawn into discussions of sexually explicit topics such as tasteless jokes or suggestive song lyrics. Discourage such conversations in your presence.

If a student confides in you regarding a personal topic of a sexual nature, either invite another adult to join the conversation or report the conversation in writing to the school counselor immediately. Don’t try to be a superhero with troubled students. A teacher’s helpful gesture may be misinterpreted by the student or the student’s parent.

Avoid transporting students in your personal vehicle. Being alone in a car with a student exposes you to accusations of misconduct in a situation where it is your word against the student’s word. In addition, you may be liable if an accident occurs.

If you or a colleague is accused of sexual harassment or abuse, you should take it seriously. Often the police are called in when students are involved due to Missouri’s mandatory reporting laws for child abuse.

Consult an attorney before answering any questions from the police or the Children’s Division (formerly Division of Family Services). Be sure to get competent advice in advance of any questioning by the district, the police or the Children’s Division.

If you or someone you know has questions about this topic, contact your Missouri NEA UniServ director.

 

by Jacquie Shipma, manager of legal services, and Karen Sholes, legal services specialist
 

 

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