Education

More Students Falsely Charge Teachers With Abuse

By Millicent Lawton — August 03, 1994 6 min read
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Whether driven by malice or misunderstanding, more students are falsely accusing teachers and administrators of sexual abuse, teachers’ unions and lawyers who handle such cases say.

New state laws are responsible for some of the increase: In the mid-1980’s, many states began requiring that people who work with children report suspected abuse.

Equally important, experts say, is that such charges--both false and legitimate--have increased as people have become more aware of sexual abuse and sexual harassment.

“It’s more of a problem now than it has ever been in the past,’' Karen L. Johnson, the general counsel for the Texas State Teachers Association, said of false charges by students.

In the past 16 years, Ms. Johnson has watched the number of complaints against teachers in Texas increase from one or two a year statewide to between 30 and 50 this year, most involving allegations of sexual abuse or sexual harassment. But the vast majority of such complaints are unfounded, Ms. Johnson and others said.

Bruce Meredith, the staff counsel for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, said that since 1977, allegations of sexual misconduct against teachers have increased from about 5 percent of his legal staff’s work to about 25 percent.

Most of that increase, he said, involves accusations in which a female student says a teacher snapped her bra strap, patted her buttocks, or rubbed against her breasts.

Karl K. Pence, the president of the Maryland State Teachers Association, said the climate of concern about abuse is much more charged now than it was just five years ago, when he left daily classroom work to become the group’s vice president.

“I will go back to the classroom far more wary than when I left,’' he said.

Acts of Revenge, Confusion

False charges sometimes arise as a way for a student to get revenge on a teacher for some perceived wrong.

Last spring in Chicago, a substitute teacher was falsely accused by students in a 4th-grade class that had become unruly.

The substitute said he disciplined the students and told them he would leave a note reporting their behavior to their regular teacher. The next day, the substitute teacher was accused of molesting 10 of the students. (See story, this page.)

In other cases, the accusation stems from the confused feelings of adolescent students who are developing faster sexually than they are psychologically.

Many children learn about “good’’ touching and “bad’’ touching. But some, especially middle school students, report any unwelcome touch, even if it is not sexual.

One union lawyer said she often heard more allegations shortly after police had visited a school to teach about bad touching.

Most often, such allegations involve a preadolescent or adolescent girl--roughly 4th grade and up--who makes an accusation against a male teacher.

Athletic coaches, counselors, and teachers of drama, band, and debate seem to be among the most at risk. Their jobs mean they may be alone with students or spend time with them off campus, such as on overnight trips.

In New Jersey last month, a longtime band teacher was acquitted of charges that he fondled four students during or after music classes, according to a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Education Association.

Four female students had alleged that Richard Cleghorn, who taught in a middle school in Burlington Township, had fondled them in incidents in 1990 and 1991.

Mr. Cleghorn was suspended from his job without pay after his arrest in 1992. The school district is required to reimburse his back pay, the spokeswoman said, and Mr. Cleghorn can return to work in the school system in the fall.

Ms. Johnson of the Texas teachers’ association said that when she hears of an accusation of abuse, she asks the teacher why a student might single him or her out. Almost invariably, she said, the teacher has done something to anger the student, such as removing the student from the first chair in the orchestra or reprimanding him or her in front of others.

“I think children are more aware this is something they can do to get back at a teacher,’' said Linda Rosenblatt, a spokeswoman for New York State United Teachers.

Peer Influence

Mr. Meredith, the Wisconsin teachers’ union lawyer, said he believes there has been an increase in the number of malicious allegations, but he said it is more common for an accusation to arise from a teacher’s acting in a way a student finds unpleasant, which then takes on a sexual interpretation.

For example, he said, students may be more likely to report the accidental or innocent touch of a teacher they consider a “geek.’'

“The girls will meet together and decide whether it was sexual or not,’' Mr. Meredith said. If they think it was, “in their minds, it occurred whether it did or not.’'

In early adolescence, students begin to look to peers for approval, said Laurel Kanthak, the director of middle-level education at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.

‘Then, when one student says, ‘Mr. Jones looked down my blouse,’ a couple of girls want to be a part of that,’' said Ms. Kanthak, who served as an elementary and middle school principal in California for 15 years.

Those who are concerned about false allegations still say it is important that children feel comfortable enough to tell someone if they believe they have been abused.

“I think we have to be aware there are many children who don’t report incidents because they’re afraid no one will believe them or they don’t want to get a teacher into trouble,’' said Carol Kelly, a former president of the National Association of School Psychologists.

Media Influence?

Allegations of abuse, whether true or false, can be devastating to educators, both personally and professionally.

“They can never truly regain their position in the community, their sense of themselves, and how other people view them,’' Ms. Kanthak said.

Because of the seriousness of a charge, however spurious, educators are beginning to fight back by filing lawsuits against students, parents, and school districts, said Philip G. Villaume, a Minnesota lawyer who represents teachers.

In Fairfax County, Va., an elementary school teacher accused of improperly touching girls made an unusual request: He wanted a public hearing with the media present.

During 10 days of administrative hearings in May and June with television-news cameras present, board members heard about Craig Gordon’s reputation as a popular physical-education teacher. They also heard former students testify that he repeatedly had touched girls or kissed them.

The school board voted 6 to 2 late last month to fire Mr. Gordon.

Unions Offer Advice

The apparent increase in false reports of abuse has been linked to factors ranging from students’ lack of respect for authority and a lack of character education to the influence of the news and entertainment media. Educators, lawyers, and union officials note that students are bombarded with talk about sex, molestation, and abuse in news broadcasts, “reality based’’ television programs, talk shows, soap operas, and music videos.

Mr. Meredith said students also learn that to get administrators’ attention, “certain words don’t get you anywhere in school, and certain words get you everywhere.’'

Teachers’ unions are warning their members to be aware of false allegations and helping them avoid even the appearance of wrongdoing.

Every year for the past few years the Maryland teachers’ association has put together a kind of welcome-to-teaching kit, which contains such items as discipline tips. This past school year, the kit included information on how to guard against allegations of sexual abuse.

Ms. Johnson of the Texas teachers’ union said her frequent talks to teacher education graduates used to focus on job searches, contracts, salaries, and benefits.

In the past couple of years, however, she has told the groups she will not let them leave without a warning about the possibility of an allegation of sexual abuse.

“You cannot let yourself be vulnerable to a lawsuit,’' Ms. Johnson said she warns novice teachers, adding: “Do not put yourself in a compromising position.’'

Such warnings mean that some teachers do not hug children and even avoid touching them.

Unfortunately, said Ms. Rosenblatt of the New York State union, a reluctance to be warm is “a real sign of the times.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 03, 1994 edition of Education Week as More Students Falsely Charge Teachers With Abuse

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