Reports of sexual misconduct taint profession, teachers say

Sexual relationships between teachers and students are the most common form of professional misconduct that can lead to teachers losing their licenses in Georgia.

A recent revision in state law makes it a crime for teachers to have sex with students in 12th grade or lower, regardless of the student’s age or willingness.

Despite the consequences, officials with the Georgia Professional Standards Commission say that as many as 50 teachers are disciplined for sexual misconduct each year.

"If you have sex with a student, the commission is going to revoke you,"‘ said Gary Walker, director of the commission's ethics division. "If you try to have sex with a student, the commission is going to suspend for a long time.  Sexual misconduct is the one [allegation] that the commission takes more seriously and results in the most revocations."

A law change in 2008 made it easier for the state and school districts to remove teachers involved in sexual misconduct.

Superintendents who have school board approval can  immediately ask for a state investigation into alleged sexual misconduct. The shortcut saves time and resources for districts and helps districts that aren't able to conduct their own investigations. State ethics investigators can then launch a probe without having to wait for approval of state commissioners.

Teachers under suspicion of sexual misconduct can “voluntarily” surrender their licenses at any point during an investigation.

That's precisely what happened recently.  Walker said a high school teacher involved with a student surrendered her license before the state began collecting evidence against her. The teacher was suspected of having a sexual relationship with a student and communicating with the teen by computer.

“I got a call Thursday ... we got the voluntary surrender on Tuesday,” Walker said. “That way we didn’t have to interview a whole lot of people. We can close that case very quickly. We will take her certification. She is not going to get another job in education in a public school.”

Three voluntary surrenders involving sexual misconduct were accepted Thursday at a state commission meeting. They were among 84 complaints of all types reviewed by the commission. Of 36 additional cases already investigated and recommended for sanctions, five involved sexual misconduct.

Two recent complaints, including one in Valdosta, also involved female teachers having sexual relationships with students. The commission voted Thursday to  investigate both.

Steven Parkman, a former Harrison High School orchestra teacher, is awaiting trial in Cobb County for allegedly having a romance with a 17-year-old  female student. He faces five counts of sexual assault against a person in custody and four counts of sodomy. His attorney has asked for the case to be dismissed. A ruling on that motion is pending.

The sexual misconduct cases are among thousands of ethics complaints heard each year by the commission. According to state statistics, more than 3,000 teachers, principals and superintendents have been investigated for violating the Code of Ethics for Educators over the past five years. Walker said the violations range "from murder on down.”

Of those, more than 400 educators accused of misconduct have had their teaching certificates revoked or denied and nearly 2,000 were either suspended or issued a reprimand or warning between 2005 and 2009.

Recently a Gwinnett County language arts teacher resigned after admitting to having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old football player. Her case also is being investigated by the state.

The Shiloh High School senior claimed Teacher of the Year Keenon Aampay Hall, 29, gave him gifts and pressured him to commit to their relationship by giving her a baby. When he declined, the student's family said, Hall gave him a failing grade, prompting him to report the relationship to school officials.

Jeff Hubbard, president of the Georgia Association of Educators, said such reports are troubling as a violation of the public's trust.

“When any type of conduct occurs, it sort of puts a film or stain over the rest of us who are doing our jobs and doing them well and who are being professional and ethical,” he said.

Male teachers and administrators account for about 65 percent of  sexual misconduct cases with students, Walker said.  But only two-tenths of 1 percent of certified educators in Georgia have been involved in sexual misconduct. The rest, Walker said, “are as upset as we are about these acts and report them to us to protect children. Professional educators do not tolerate or condone child abuse.”

Ruth Keenan, a teacher since 1977, said sex between teachers and students is as old as Socrates. But e-mail, text messaging and social networking sites bring the conduct to light more frequently.  There's even a Web site -- badteachers.com -- devoted to the issue.  Nearly 70 Georgia educators, mostly teachers, are currently listed on the site as having had sexual contact with a student.

“I remember it happening even when I was in high school,” said Keenan, a teacher at J.C. Booth Middle School in Peachtree City. “My senior government teacher, who actually had left the priesthood, was involved with a friend of mine and everybody knew about it."

And Keenan said her French teacher often made sexually suggestive comments during class.

The state offers training to help teachers and prospective teachers learn professional protocol, including how to set boundaries with students.  PSC officials conduct the sessions throughout the school year  to help educators and college students understand  the ethical and legal issues involved.

In addition to being taught how to identify potential predators, teachers are also told how to spot student victims and to  avoid meeting with students behind closed doors.  “Be friendly but avoid being friends,”  Walker said.

Keenan said she remembers the angst she felt about working in a high school at the age of 21. “I think it would be a lot harder for a real young teacher to manage that line between being their teacher and being their buddy,” she said.

Her district offers training to help teachers maintain their professionalism.“We have an ethics video we watch every year and a class we have to go through."

Educators and students must hold themselves to a high ethical standard, Hubbard said.  “Sometimes we have students who are willing participants in these things,” he said. “We've had a breakdown in what’s expected.”

Keenan said she is amazed by the number of teachers who are willing to risk losing their jobs over inappropriate relationships. “That’s just really stupid and irresponsible,” she said. "I don't get it."

On May 20, Gov. Sonny Perdue signed legislation making it clear that sex between teachers and students in Georgia is a crime. It is considered sexual assault on a person in custody even when it is consensual. The felony is punishable by one to 25 years in prison or a $100,000 fine if the child is 16 (the age of sexual consent in Georgia) or older, and 25 to 50 years in prison if the student is under 16.

“Now it is no longer hidden,” Walker said. “You have got to shine a light on the things that need to be cleaned up.”

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