Always Address False Allegations of Improper Conduct With Students
Other than a child's family, no other people are as close to children than school employees.
While this is an honor and a privilege, it comes with great responsibility and risk.
Why risk? Other than parents, no other group of people is accused of child abuse and molestation more often than school employees. And I do stress the word "accused." Fortunately for all involved, the majority of accusations are false.
Still, once someone has pointed their finger at you as a molester, the label is hard to shake. You have been branded, it seems, and no matter if proven innocent the public will remember the accusation. This is why school employees should take precautions against improper conduct with students. and defend themselves with no reserve against false charges.
A Damaged Reputation
While I was president of my local education support professionals (ESP) Association in Brownstown, Illinois, one of our bus drivers was falsely accused of child abuse.
During the investigation by the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), he made a huge mistake by not taking the charge serious. He brushed it off and made little effort to prove his innocence. His case was helped by his rock-solid reputation and spotless record of 40-some years. He kept his job, but that meticulous reputation he worked hard to develop over four decades now has a crack. And that is what some people will remember.
All accusations need to be defended vigorously. At the 2008 NEA ESP Conference in Baltimore, Maryland, UniServ Director Andres Becerra, from New Mexico, led a session titled, "Practical Advice for School Employees about Avoiding False Allegations of Improper Conduct with Students." He presented a video displaying proper and improper conduct between school employees and students.
Know the Laws
Children's protection laws may differ from one state to another. To help members in my state, the Illinois Education Association (IEA) publishes, "Ten Things You Should Know About the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS)." They are:
1. All school employees are mandated reporters and could be found guilty of a misdemeanor if they suspect a child has been abused or neglected and fail to report to DCFS.
2. DCFS must investigate every allegation of abuse reported to the agency and must do so within strict time frames.
3. An employee accused of abuse should never be interviewed by DCFS without an Association representative present.
4. DCFS allegations may also result in a disciplinary investigation by the school, a criminal investigation by police, a civil suit by the parents and be reported to the press.
5. DCFS will issue an "Indicated" finding if there is merely credible evidence of abuse and will issue an "Unfounded" report only where there is no credible evidence of abuse.
6. The employee has 60 days from the date of the Indicated letter to file an appeal.
7. An employee given an Indicated finding can appeal that determination and receive a hearing where he or she can present evidence and confront accusers who are over age 14. This hearing can be reviewed in court.
8. The school employer may choose to take no action against the employee even if DCFS issues an Indicated finding or the school may choose to discipline even after an Unfounded report is issued.
9. The Regional Superintendent will be notified of an Indicated report and can begin proceedings to revoke the teaching certificate.
10. An Indicated finding will stay on the state central registry for a minimum of 5 years and will be disclosed to potential future employers who are responsible for children's welfare.
The Becerra session focused on keeping our guard up and not allowing ourselves to stumble into a precarious situation where we might get accused of improper conduct.
Unfortunately, when allegations are made against a school employee -- from thievery to sexual harrassment -- the public will usually still doubt us even when proven innocent. In the folder that Andres handed out, there was a quote from Joseph Hall: "A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep its eyes on the spot where the crack was."
Still, we should not view DCFS with fear or disrespect. Their job is similar to ours: we are working for the good of the children. This responsibility is accompanied by much joy and some risk.
(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is a custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.
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