Rights Watch: Falsely Accused
It’s the worst thing that can happen to an educator. So how do you avoid it?
Virginia teacher and NEA member Ron Mayfield Jr. committed suicide two weeks after being wrongly accused of hitting a wheelchair-bound middle school student. He jumped off a bridge into the Roanoke River, not far from where he often had fished with his father and later with his own son.
His widow told the Washington Post that Mayfield had been depressed, tired, and nervous during his suspension from work. “I cannot have my face on television and in the newspaper over this incident,” he wrote her in a note.
Tragically, Mayfield never knew that the police already had cleared him of any wrongdoing. The day before he took his own life, investigators had notified school officials that there was no evidence to substantiate the charge and that the case had been closed. Nobody bothered to call the falsely accused teacher.
While teacher suicides are relatively rare, false allegations are not. And even if the charges are proved false and the teacher is vindicated, the harm already has been done.
Greg Lawler, an attorney with the Colorado Education Association, has written a book, Guilty Until Proven Innocent, which documents how false allegations can ruin careers and lives.
“Whenever there is an allegation, there is a victim, whether it is the accused or the accuser,” Lawler says. “Students these days know all too well the consequences of an abuse complaint, and they know how to game the system,” he warns. “They know how to get an unpopular teacher fired by making false allegations, and unfortunately, some of them try to do just that.”
Because the stakes are so high, the NEA Representative Assembly voted last year to produce a pamphlet specifically for new educators that provides common-sense advice on how to avoid false allegations of inappropriate behavior with students.
Entitled Teach But Don’t Touch, the pamphlet was produced with input from NEA state affiliate attorneys, who all too frequently are called on to defend teachers who possibly could have avoided bogus accusations. The pamphlet will be disseminated to all state affiliates. Here are some highlights:
If possible, never be alone with a student—not in a classroom or a house, and especially not in a car. Never give a student a ride home. If you can’t avoid being alone with a student at school, keep the door open and stay in plain sight.
Always maintain a professional demeanor and distance. That means no flirting, teasing, or joking about sex. Don’t give gifts, unless you give one to every student, and don’t single out any one student for special attention or flattery. Never send e-mails, text messages, or cards to students unrelated to school work, and don’t ask students about their social lives or comment on their personal appearance.
Physical contact is a particularly tricky area. Younger children often seek out and need physical comfort from their teachers. In the early elementary grades, an occasional hug is probably OK. But as a general rule, it’s best to avoid most forms of physical contact, especially kissing, hair stroking, tickling, and frontal hugging. And use common sense: a “high five” to acknowledge a job well done is fine; a slap on the bottom is not.
Nip crushes in the bud; never allow a student to obsess over you. While crushes can be flattering, they also can be fatal. An unfulfilled fantasy can result in a student acting out to gain attention or retaliating for being ignored.
If a student expresses a love interest, respond with an unambiguous “no.” Don’t equivocate and certainly don’t encourage the student by acting pleased by the attention. It’s also advisable to share this information with another adult and your union representative. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to tell your supervisor and ask that the student be transferred.
But even if you follow this advice, there’s no guarantee that you won’t be the victim of unfounded charges. If the unthinkable happens, remember this: Never give an oral or written statement to school officials without first consulting with your union representative. Even innocent statements can be misconstrued.
—Michael D. Simpson
NEA Office of General Counsel
Illustration: Carol Benioff