District to stress teacher behavior rules
By ROBERT FARLEY, Times Staff Writer
Until recently, in more than 30 years as a guidance counselor, coach, assistant principal and principal, Tarpon Springs High School principal John Nicely had never come across a case of an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and a student.
In two months, however, North Pinellas schools have dealt with three such allegations, including one at Tarpon Springs High. Each involved a male teacher and a 17-year-old female student:
In December, a second-year teacher and girls basketball coach at East Lake High School resigned amid a criminal investigation into why he let a student stay at his apartment.
In late January, a second-year teacher and boys basketball coach at Tarpon Springs High was suspended and charged with sexual battery on a student in his office at school.
On Feb. 7, a 30-year teacher at Palm Harbor University High committed suicide during a criminal investigation into an allegation that he had an improper relationship with a student.
"I don't understand it," Nicely said. "We have a trust with parents and the community that we shouldn't do anything like that."
Do three cases make a trend? No, say officials. Are they disturbing? Definitely, and they have school administrators and sheriff's investigators talking.
"I think people are saying, "What the heck is going on?' " said Carol Madura, a Pinellas County School District crisis counselor.
In response, administrators are discussing how and why a few teachers cross the line, and what the district should do to try to prevent such problems in the future, Madura said.
"You wouldn't think we would have to do that, but apparently we do," she said. "I think it's time we do something."
'How we protect our children'
In a typical year, Pinellas County public schools see two or three incidents of inappropriate relationships between teachers and students, said Jackie Spoto Bircher, an attorney for the School District.
"It's not nearly as rare as I'd like it to be," Bircher said. "And for every two or three allegations, I'm sure there are more out there that we don't know about."
Yet Bircher said she's not sure how much more the School District can do.
"I don't know if you can counsel people against it," she said. "You shouldn't have to explain to a teacher that you do not date or do anything else with a student. It's common sense. And it's criminal."
True, Madura said, but in light of the recent spate of incidents, she believes some type of additional instruction is warranted.
"We need to look at how we protect our children," Madura said, "and how to protect our staff from getting involved in these things."
Administrators are preparing a program to instruct principals and assistant principals about how to let teachers know inappropriate relationships with students are a "no-win for everyone," Madura said.
The program also would instruct principals on troubling signs to look for "and how to deal with it when they get the creepy feeling something is going on," Madura said.
The district encourages teachers to be sensitive, to act as confidant and counselor to students with problems. But administrators also warn teachers not to get so close to students that they jeopardize their professional relationship.
"It's a fine line to walk," School District spokesman Ron Stone said.
Stone said principals usually quell potential problems with a "direct heart-to-heart" with a teacher who is the subject of rumors or who the principal suspects has gotten too close to a student. Teachers sometimes need to be reminded that even the perception of impropriety can be a problem, he said.
School officials aren't the only ones discussing the issue.
The Sheriff's Office is considering suggesting that principals give teachers a "strong reminder" of the laws and punishments they face, said Sgt. Stefanie Campbell of the sheriff's crimes against children unit.
"I think we have an obligation to show them the facts," she said.
The facts are, she said, that even if the relationship is consensual, a teacher can go to prison.
Offenses typically fall under one of three Florida statutes, Campbell said. The first is for lewd or lascivious offenses committed on or in the presence of a child under 16. The second is unlawful sexual activity with a minor, which involves someone age 24 or older engaging in sexual activity with someone 16 or 17 years old. Those crimes carry maximum penalties of 15 years in prison.
Even more serious is a provision in the sexual battery statutes. That makes it a crime for a person to have sexual contact with someone over whom they have authority or control. A teacher or coach fits that bill with a student or player, Campbell said.
Convictions under that statute can bring up to 30 years in prison.
'You should know'
Despite warnings and potential prison sentences, sometimes teachers still cross the line with students.
It's difficult to pinpoint what sets the stage for a relationship between a student and a teacher or coach, Madura said.
Certainly, she said, high school girls are at a vulnerable age. Some are looking for father figures. Others are looking for ways to validate themselves. Many seem to involve students in special, small-group programs.
Campbell warns against making sweeping generalizations about the types of teachers and students who get involved in improper relationships. Most often, she said, they involve male teachers and female students between 12 and 18, but not always.
Kids today look and act older than they did even 20 years ago, she said. They wear makeup earlier and begin dating earlier. "But that shouldn't ever be an excuse," she said.
Campbell also worries that looking for similarities in victims might lead some parents to conclude " "that's not my kid' and drop it."
"I have to tell you, we've seen the gamut," Campbell said. "We have had cases with victims from stable middle- or upper-class families with two parents paying attention to the kid."
In some cases, the teachers are not much older than the student. Teachers are sometimes as young as 22 years old; seniors are sometimes 18.
For that very reason, all new teachers are warned during orientation not to cross the line of appropriate student-teacher interaction, Stone said.
At East Lake High, former girls basketball coach Willie Hopkins was 23. Investigators with the Pasco County Sheriff's Office said Hopkins, who also taught language arts, allowed a 17-year-old girl to stay at his apartment in Holiday for two to three weeks. Although no criminal charges have been filed, the case is still being reviewed by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.
Hopkins resigned and has declined to discuss the allegations, saying only, "Things aren't always what they seem."
At Tarpon Springs High, Michael Grayer, 29, was charged with sexual battery on a 17-year-old female student. Pinellas investigators said the incident occurred in mid January in Grayer's office.
Grayer taught social studies in a dropout prevention program and resigned in early January as coach of the boys junior varsity basketball team. He was placed on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of the investigation.
"He categorically, unequivocally and completely denies the accusations against him," said Grayer's attorney, Dwight Dudley. "He never had any contact with this girl."
At Palm Harbor University High, deputies "didn't have, at that stage, a case we could prosecute" after interviewing teacher Danny Cole and the 17-year-old student, said Pinellas County Sheriff's Lt. Stephen Shipman.
Cole told investigators he bought the girl a $100 prepaid phone card and took her to lunch over the winter break, Shipman said. Both Cole and the girl denied a sexual relationship, Shipman said, but e-mails obtained by investigators "obviously portrayed something beyond just a friendship or teacher-student relationship."
Cole, 51, a respected and well-liked social studies teacher in Palm Harbor's International Baccalaureate program, commited suicide the day after he was questioned by detectives.
"It's horrifying for everyone," Madura said.
In the wake of such tragedy and the other two recent incidents, Nicely said such misconduct is so disturbing to him and so plainly wrong that he's not sure whether instruction would help.
"It's something you should know," he said. "I don't tell female teachers not to use the men's restroom and vice versa. There are things you just know."
After a spate of accusations of inappropriate teacher-student contact, the district is preparing briefings for administrators on the "fine line."
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times
North Pinellas desks