ADVOCATES: SETTING STUDENT-TEACHER BOUNDARIES A TOOL TO CURB TEACHER SEX CRIMES. After two teacher sex cases in one year, Palisades is the latest Bucks County district to consider adopting a version of Policy 824, which defines what’s appropriate conduct between teachers and students. New Hope-Solebury, Bristol Borough, Central Bucks, Council Rock, Pennridge and Pennsbury already have the policy on the books.
February 2, 2020
Bucks County Courier Times
A 15-year-old student struggling in math in one Bucks County school district sought help from her teacher. After a few meetings, they exchanged emails, then texts, then pictures. Eventually, the relationship became sexual.
In a neighboring district, a female teacher befriended a male student on Snapchat, then began swapping pictures and text messages; the exchanges eventually led to sex.
Another area teacher gave excessive passes to students, enabling them to cut class and visit his office. The same teacher repeatedly credited students for work that was never completed. A trail of seemingly innocuous behavior ended in sexual assault of several students.
In nearly all cases of sexual crimes involving teachers in the last several years in area districts, perpetrators displayed a trend of “grooming” through behaviors, not illegal, but also “not appropriate,” said Matt Lannetti, deputy district attorney and chief of child abuse prosecutions for Bucks County whose office has investigated cases in Palisades, New Hope-Solebury, Central Bucks and Council Rock school districts in recent years.
“Almost every one of these starts with, ’He or she gave me their cellphone number,” said Lannetti, who said he can’t think of a good reason a teacher should be texting with a student. “It can only lead to bad things.”
Displaying favoritism, sharing Instagram stories or “snaps” with students or oversharing personal details may not be illegal, but a growing number of school districts want to make it clear that for teachers, such exchanges violate professional boundaries.
Many Pennsylvania school districts — including Palisades, which faced two high-profile sexual misconduct cases in one year — are looking to adopt or have adopted a “Maintaining Professional Adult/Student Boundaries Policy,” which spells out boundary-blurring behaviors that can be a precursor to sexual misconduct.
Known as Policy 824, the guidelines prohibit things like sexual talk and eliminates the practice of a teacher being alone in a classroom with a student. Other prohibited actions include sharing personal information; giving gifts; having friendship with students, in person or online; and giving rides to students. At least six area districts have the policy in place, including New Hope-Solebury, Bristol Borough, Central Bucks, Council Rock, Pennridge and Pennsbury.
Policy 824 was crafted by the Pennsylvania School Board Association in 2015 in an update to the state’s Educator Discipline Act that added boundary-blurring behaviors.
Mandy Mundy, senior director of programs and services for the Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA), said the majority of teachers understand their ethical boundaries as professionals. Over the last two years, NOVA has worked in seven Bucks County school districts to provide training for educators, hosting training on the Stewards of Children child sexual abuse prevention program or for mandated reporting of child abuse prevention.
Training at schools, she said, serves as “reinforcement.”
Mundy said she knows that student-teacher relationship-building is a key to the health and wellness of students, but “it needs to maintain boundaries and remain appropriate.”
“It’s not black and white,” Mundy said. “There are many gray areas. This is why conversations and training are so important.”
“Teachers do have an advisory role, but when a teacher becomes a confidant, a friend or a counselor to a student, that dual relation creates ambiguity and roles become less defined. It is in that ambiguity that sexual misconduct could occur for those intentionally creating that dual relationship as part of the grooming process.”
Drawing clear lines
Tinicum resident Sheila Rodgers is part of a community group, “Palisades Parents: Prioritizing Well-being, Success, and Safety,” calling on the district to adopt a policy to better prevent the blurring of boundaries between a teacher-student relationship.
“From a child’s perspective, if teachers are crossing boundaries — even with the best intentions — it leaves the children unable to navigate between normal and potential grooming behavior, and it becomes a cultural norm, and they are not able to see the red flags when an adult has crossed a boundary,” said Rodgers.
The mobilizing of the group came shortly after the January sentencing of former teacher Christian Willman, who faces up to 12 years in state prison for sexually assaulting students at Palisades High School and Parkland High School in Lehigh County, and the Jan. 3 arrest of former teacher Francis Reppert Jr., who is accused of taking “upskirt” photos of students at Palisades High School.
Addressing the school board last month, Rodgers said the policy could serve as a resource document for school employees and as a way to share guidelines for appropriate interactions with other adults who engage with students, such as coaches and volunteers.
“It specifically defines the ‘gray’ zone — behaviors that could be considered unprofessional, illegal, amoral but not necessarily illegal,” she said.
Rodgers was surprised to hear that Palisades had not reviewed the policy, which the Pennsylvania School Board Association recommended in 2016.
New Hope-Solebury School district was among a few local districts to adopt it early on. Though it was enacted before he arrived at the district, Superintendent Charles Lentz said the policy “clears up any uncertainty with what the expectations are.”
“There are times when teachers inadvertently cross the lines,” he said. “If someone is displaying murky behavior and it becomes a pattern, the policy gives us leverage we wouldn’t already have. If some of the things are out of compliance with the policy, it gives us an opportunity for discussion.”
Palisades Superintendent Bridget O’Connell said in a statement the board’s policy committee is now reviewing Policy 824.
She said the district already has in place policies specific to child abuse, acceptable internet and electronic technology use, and on educator misconduct that “set expectations for professional behavior, training and reporting of suspected cases of child abuse.”
She said Policy 824 will help “define examples of prohibited conduct that violates professional boundaries” for both employees and others interacting with students.
In a letter to the Palisades community following both crimes, O’Connell said, “These incidents are more than unacceptable, they are a call to action for us to continue talking with children about staying safe, reporting anything that seems out of line or potentially harmful, and continuing to work together to protect our children.”
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