How Far Should Educators Go to Help Students in Need?

By Denisa R. Superville — January 24, 2019 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

An Indiana superintendent is facing three felony charges, including insurance fraud, after allegedly claiming that a sick student was her own child in order to get him medical treatment.

Superintendent Casey Smitherman, of the Elwood Community School District, said that, in hindsight, she would love to go back and redo that moment.

“I am not saying it was right, I’m really sorry,” Smitherman said in a television interview that aired on WABC. “I was scared for him. I would love to go back to that moment and redo it.”

It seems Smitherman’s intentions were entirely benevolent, and we know educators—teachers, principals, and superintendents—often go out of their way to help students in need.

Teachers, principals, and superintendents regularly dip into their pockets to buy food, clothing, school supplies, and other necessities for students.

Sometimes their good will goes even further.

So, how far should educators go to help students?

“Other than breaking the law, there are no limits,” said Daniel Domenech, the executive director of the AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

“There are people who will write checks, who will take kids in, who will bring food home, who will take them to games, who will do all kinds of things because it’s in the best interest of the kids,” Domenech said. “I love that about my colleagues and educators. They truly are there for the kids. You just have to be careful that you don’t break the law, and that you don’t go overboard...because that’s not going to help.”

But there are gray areas, and educators should be careful to avoid them, Domenech said.

They should be wary about getting too close to students or building emotional ties to the point where they think of students as their adopted children, Domenech said.

And in addition to drawing the line at illegality, they should also make sure their actions to help kids do not violate district policies, he said.

In the Indiana case, Smitherman said she was worried about a student who had missed school. When she checked in on him at home, she noticed what she thought were symptoms of strep throat, Smitherman said in a statement posted on Fox 59.

She took the 15-year-old student to a clinic and was initially denied care, she said. At a second facility, she said he was her son and used her insurance card to cover the student’s medical care.

“I knew he did not have insurance, and I wanted to do all I could to help him get well,” she said in the statement. “I know this action was wrong. In the moment, my only concern was for this child’s health.”

Although Domenech was not familiar with all the details in the Indiana case, he said he understood Smitherman’s motivation, though he does not agree with breaking the law.

“I can see her doing what she did at the moment, fearing that perhaps a child’s life was at stake and he needed attention,” he said.

The superintendent could have handled it differently, Domenech said, like paying for his medical expenses herself.

Smitherman was charged with official misconduct, insurance fraud, insurance application fraud, and identity deception, according to Fox 59.

She is working on entering a diversion program with the Madison County Prosecutor’s Office, meaning that she will likely have no criminal conviction if she does not get arrested within a year, according to the Indianapolis Star.

The county prosecutor told the Indianapolis Star that while Smitherman was attempting to do a good deed, she didn’t go about it the right way.

“The other side of it is you have a school superintendent who is demonstrating through her actions that it’s OK to be dishonest and falsify your name,” Cummings told the paper. “That was more troubling. I think she realizes that.”

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.