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Numbers don't tell whole story of sexual misconduct by teachers

Lindsey Collom
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 23, 2003 12:00 AM

Flirting. Leaning in. Touching.

It's the type of behavior one would expect in a bar, not a classroom.

The Arizona Department of Education investigated 130 claims of sexual offense by a teacher or administrator in 2002, more than double the number of claims in 1995. Out of the 769 reports from 1995 to 2002, 128 resulted in disciplinary action.

They're hefty numbers, but some school observers contend they're not an adequate representation of what's going on at schools because many cases don't get reported to police.

Districts are required to investigate all claims and report those inquiries to the Arizona Department of Education and to police. But sometimes those claims don't make it past the victim or the witness' lips.

Failing to report misconduct to authorities is something that happens more than school officials care to acknowledge, said Mary Jo McGrath, a California-based attorney with more than 20 years experience in education and personnel law.

McGrath, whose company, McGrath Inc., trains teachers and administrators on issues of sexual harassment, bullying, cultural and racial diversity and athletic liability, says teachers sometimes ignore warning signs because they don't trust their gut instincts.

"People are very reluctant to rat on people, and people are insecure on what they perceived in what they witnessed," McGrath said. "They're like, 'Gee, you know, it's probably nothing. I'm probably oversensitive,' and they don't take action."

Earlier this month, Phoenix police criticized Desert Vista High School administrators for failing to notify authorities last year when three teens accused a 60-year-old teacher of sexual misconduct. The Department of Education is investigating whether administrators erred in failing to report the incidents.

That same teacher, Richard Martin, was fired a couple of weeks ago for groping a 16-year-old student. The case is one of several in which teachers have been disciplined or are under investigation for blurring the lines between right and wrong.

Consider recent events in the Valley:

A 24-year-old teacher at Marcos de Niza High in Tempe was arrested Tuesday after rumors of a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old student were reported to police.

A 26-year-old Higley High teacher is awaiting the results of a paternity test after he was rumored to have fathered the child of a 16-year-old former student.

A 27-year-old Gilbert Highland Junior High teacher was dismissed in February for having a romantic relationship with a 12-year-old student.

A 27-year-old teacher from Cherokee Elementary in Scottsdale was indicted in January on 30 felony counts including child molestation. The principal resigned after a school district investigation found that he failed to discipline the teacher.

On Friday, David Edgar Welsh of Scottsdale, a former Mesa teacher, and Ronald Henry Harris of Chandler, a former Glendale teacher, were given 19-year prison sentences for sex crimes against children.

According to Phoenix police Sgt. Randy Force, the increased number of reports doesn't mean misconduct is happening more often, just that more students are speaking out.

"I think you have to listen to your students," Force said. "There's no bright neon sign on their (a perpetrator's) forehead that says 'molester' or 'pedophile.' If there's any advice I would give, it's listen closely when a child tells you about inappropriate behavior. Not all claims may be true, but they should be investigated thoroughly."

McGrath said perpetrators often defy stereotypes. The highest percentage of violators are coaches, drama, music, special-education teachers and others who have the opportunity to isolate certain students in the course of activities, she added.

Some experts say reports of molestation and sexual harassment in schools are indicative of inadequate character training in college and on the job.

"There are a lot of afterthoughts in the curriculum," said Arizona State University Professor Donald Blumenfeld-Jones, an associate professor at the ASU Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics. "I think the reason is because there's been such a focus on accountability of academic knowledge. There's so much pressure to fulfill all these other things that finding a place for ethics becomes a task of placing it inside other experiences."

Blumenfeld-Jones says teachers must first develop as human beings and second as academically skilled. Part of being a good teacher is being a good person and knowing boundaries, he said.

But at ASU, character training is not a requirement, only an elective: a one-credit class titled Classroom Management. A student must accrue 120 credits to graduate.

At the University of Arizona, ethics are infused into a handful of pre-professional classes. And education majors at Northern Arizona University receive limited ethics training in an introduction to education course and the junior-level writing course "School and Society."

Blumenfeld-Jones is in the process of writing a grant to change curriculum so that ethics are central to the mission of teacher preparation. It's a hopeful prospect for budding educators, but what about current teachers?

McGrath said most teachers aren't given any instruction beyond notice of specific school board policy on sexual harassment and teacher-student relations.

"I think if we did pay more attention to the area of ethics or character of a teacher, there are a whole bunch of issues that would be addressed, not only the direct harm of students, but also their own tenacity and perseverance in the profession," McGrath said. "If they're not grounded in something bigger than themselves . . . there's no basis to make it through those challenges."

Lack of grounding means lack of boundaries, she said. That's why some teachers "set out to gratify their own compulsions and own needs" without regard for the victim.

"Are they setting out to hurt that person? No, not usually," McGrath said. "It reflects a total lack of awareness in terms of their responsibility as the adult in the situation without taking into mind the life stage the person is at."

She said that can be squelched with character-growing opportunities.

"If they're not given those opportunities, those things don't grow," she said. "They seem maybe a subject for Sunday school at best. That's a shame because life is much more powerful than that."

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