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Protect Yourself From False Accusations

Over the past year it has been reported that a student was going to report her teacher was looking at her chest because she "didn't like the grade he gave her." In another frequent example, a student complained that the teacher had "inappropriately" touched her because he required too much homework or had "embarrassed" her by singling her out to respond to a question in class. Similarly, female teachers find themselves charged with "inappropriate" touching towards both male and female students for a variety of reasons. Coaches and physical education teachers of both genders are particularly vulnerable to such allegations.

So, how do teachers protect themselves from false accusations? Following are some practical steps to limit the opportunities for misconduct accusations.

  1. Do not leave your class unattended, especially if a fight has started between students. In case of such emergencies, have a designated student in your class to the front office for assistance. Teachers have a duty to exercise proper supervision over students in their classes and to exercise reasonable care to prevent injuries where they are not negligent or where their negligence was not the proximate cause of the injury.

  2. Never be alone in a private area with a student. If a student comes into the classroom and you happen to be alone, immediately step out into a public area such as the corridor. When a student wants to speak about a confidential matter that can be accomplished by speaking low even though you are in an area where you can be viewed by the public.

  3. Students should not be given your home phone number and should it be necessary for you, as a teacher to call a student at home, insist that a parent be on the phone as well.

  4. Do not drive a student home from an after-school event unless absolutely necessary, and even then, always have another person in the car with you. If it becomes necessary to give a student a ride in your vehicle, it should only be done after you have attempted to locate another adult to accompany you and you have notified the parent or an administrator that you are doing so.

  5. Do not use force against a student unless it is absolutely necessary to defend yourself or to protect another student from injury.

  6. Do not change a young child's underwear or diapers unless another adult is present.

  7. Do not administer corporal punishment unless you are authorized to do so and follow guidelines strictly.

  8. Do not search the body of (i.e., "strip search") a student, even if you believe you have probable cause which warrants a search. In almost every case, strip searches of students appear to be in violation of students' Fourth Amendment rights.

  9. Do not tutor one of your students for compensation unless you get prior approval from your principal.

  10. Keep accurate records and receipts in the collection and disbursement of school monies - for example, school clubs or athletic events.

  11. Do not have a relationship with a student outside of school or school activities. Always maintain only a professional association with students, even if they may be close to your age.

  12. Keep detailed notes of daily activities in class, particularly those comments by students that might be open to different interpretations, i.e. a student asking a science teacher about human anatomy should be documented. Teachers have faced situations where an "innocent" question and the subsequent answer resulted in a reprimand because of the different "interpretations" that were related through the grapevine.

  13. Keep a professional perspective and style with students; you cannot communicate with students as a parent.

  14. Do not fail to report suspected child abuse. If you have reason to believe that a student in your care who is under the age of 18 has been abused by a parent or caretaker, you must report the suspected abuse to a child welfare agency providing protective services or to an appropriate police authority. (You may report it to a designated person at your school or in your district if there is a written policy which requires the teacher to first report such an incident to the principal or other designee. The principal or designee will then report it to the proper authority.

All to frequently administrators are accepting the student's version of events and, in way too many situations, not even bothering to properly investigate an allegation before placing a teacher on administrative leave or reporting the matter to local law enforcement officials for criminal investigation. This is true whether the allegation is sexual misconduct, physical abuse, or even just using a word that a student doesn't appreciate. The result is that teachers are experiencing discipline and damage to their reputation under a theory of "guilty before proven innocent," thus, facing immediately a burden that can overwhelm them.

Should you have any concern regarding your conduct towards students, remember an old adage, "when in doubt don't." Act with caution and seek guidance and approval from administrators before taking unilateral action that might be open to unintended interpretations.

The foregoing advice and tips were taken from an article ("Protect Yourself from False Accusations") by La Rae Munk, Director of NWPE and AAE's Legal Services, and an article ("Tips for Heading Off Legal Problems") by Jill Hay, General Counsel for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

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