Student-faculty relationships can be tricky

Attention is one of those things that most people like to receive, and many enjoy giving. But problems arise when that attention is inappropriate. And when that inappropriate attention takes place in a school setting, the potential for disaster grows exponentially.

A U.S. Department of Education report in 2004 suggested that as many as 10 percent of the country’s public school students experience some type of improper sexual attention from school employees. Some of those incidents may involve a simple misunderstanding, while others result from a blurring of the line between what is appropriate and what is not. The last and most feared category involves adults who willfully decide to violate societal norms.

Unfortunately in this country, it’s not unusual to see a headline or hear a TV report about a teacher or coach who is under investigation for inappropriate – or sometimes even criminal – behavior involving students. It makes some wonder if these things are happening more often, or if they’re just reported more often.

Fairmont High School Principal Dan Von Handorf isn’t sure which is the case, but he is sure of one thing. “Society is definitely more sensitive to these cases,” he said. “You hear a lot more stories from the media.”

Students need to know adults care

Student-staff relationships can be a difficult issue because many teachers, counselors and coaches are encouraged to interact with their students. East Unit Guidance Counselor Dave Elliott sees a lot of positive in good relationships with students. “Students are more likely to produce high quality work if the teacher is someone who cares about them,” he said. “Students know almost immediately if a teacher cares about them.”

As a guidance counselor, he also believes that students have to know they can speak confidentially to him or another staff member. “Students sometimes need to vent,” he said. “No one is a perfect parent. When I didn’t communicate well as a parent, I was happy if they had someone at school.”

Sometimes faculty members can play life-changing roles in a student’s life. Elliott has dealt with many tough situations. “Sometimes we are given the opportunity to play critical roles. We dare not take advantage of that trust,” he said. “It is important to step away from our own life and focus on the needs of the student.”

Elliott definitely agrees there is a negative side if teachers breach the trust they are given. “There are far more positives than negatives, but the negatives get the publicity,” he said.

Does technology play a role?

Casual observers as well as those studying the problem of inappropriate teacher-student relationships often cite technology as a contributing factor. Emails, texts and Facebook didn’t pose problems for generations because those things just didn’t exist.

“There are great uses of technology, but there is always a negative side,” Von Handorf said, adding that he feels advances in technology have widened an already-gray area between students and teachers.

Fairmont math teacher Laura Jacobs sees both the positive and negative sides of technology. She said she feels comfortable answering students’ questions through emails, but she feels texting is – in some circumstances – a little over the limit. “For me, giving out your cell phone number to students should be the exception, not the rule,” she said.

However, Jacobs turns to that exception when dealing with after-school activities. As assistant coach of the tennis teams, she says she lets her concern for safety guide her. “I always make sure all my tennis players have my cell phone number,” she said.

Some students also see a benefit in being able to text their teachers. “When I was in peer mediation, we would text our adviser when we visited other schools,” said senior David Byrley. “We wouldn’t get in trouble because she’d always know where we were. It helps with organization.”

Von Handorf said he clearly sees a positive side to technology. “Teachers can use web pages to spread information, and club advisers can communicate through texting to let people know information quickly,” he said.

Byrley agrees texting can be useful, but he thinks limits on face-to-face contact outside of school are important. “There shouldn’t be any one-on-one time away from the classroom,” he said.

On the other hand, senior Joseph Yahna doesn’t see any need for students to be texting teachers or vice versa. “I just don’t see why it would be necessary. If you have questions, they can probably be handled inside of school,” he said.

Math teacher Scott Mitter says students sometimes text him questions about math. “Texting is less intimidating than calling when you are asking a question,” he said.

Von Handorf mentioned some teachers have brought up the idea of district-purchased cell phones that could be used by club advisers to talk to their students. This way, teachers wouldn’t have to give their personal numbers to students, but they could still stay in contact with them about school-related activities.

What would be the difference? “Some teachers were concerned about receiving a text that was inappropriate and getting in trouble for it,” Von Handorf said.

Will you be my ‘friend’?

Texting isn’t the only technology being questioned by those concerned with student-teacher relationships. With the steady rise of Facebook and other social networking websites, some question whether such “friendships” between students and teachers are appropriate.

(A note to non-Facebook users:  In this popular social network, a person can make his or her profile page “private” to anyone who is not listed as a “friend.”  Two people must agree to be “friends” in order to see each other’s page contents or to communicate with each other through the site.)

Several Fairmont teachers have Facebook pages, and some of them are “friends” with their students.  Byrley said he is friends with at least one teacher through Facebook, but he said he doesn’t communicate to her through it. “I’m OK with teachers being on Facebook, but it’s bad when teachers mention things on Facebook during school.”

Yahna sees no need for teachers to be on Facebook at all. He said he would be reluctant to add any teacher to his list of Facebook friends.           

Mitter, however, is friends with many of his students, past and present. “I have nothing to hide. I don’t put anything on my Facebook that I wouldn’t want the public to see,” he said.

Professionalism is the key

How can inappropriate communications between students and staff be stopped? Some critics say that a stricter hiring process for teachers would eliminate some of the problems. Like police officers, teachers could be subjected to psychological or polygraph testing before being hired. But that would be a very time-consuming and expensive task to hang on school districts that are already scrambling for operating money.

Von Handorf emphasizes the importance of teachers being professional when it comes to their relationships with students. He feels that Fairmont teachers do a good job of this, although even Fairmont has felt the sting of poor judgment in this area. English teacher Jeff Mauch was removed from the classroom last fall for sending inappropriate emails to some female students, according to the Dayton Daily News. The newspaper quoted Superintendent James Schoenlein, who said the district’s investigation revealed Mauch didn’t break any criminal laws and did not have sexual contact with a student.

Von Handorf feels any communication that makes a student or teacher uncomfortable is inappropriate. “Communication should deal directly with curriculum,” he said. He also said if a student would feel uncomfortable telling their parents something a teacher said, then it is most likely inappropriate.

If boundaries are crossed, VonHandorf says the teacher or student should address it. “If a student feels a boundary is crossed, he or she needs to talk to their unit principal. We take these incidents very seriously and a full investigation would follow,” he said.

But Elliott hopes teachers and students can still maintain close – but appropriate – relationships. “Every student needs someone once in a while,” he said. “Working with young people has kept me enthusiastic. The relationships with students make my job worth doing.”