When Tara Czepiel learned that a former Wichita high school teacher – her son’s former English teacher – had been arrested on suspicion of alleged sex crimes, she thought like a lot of parents.
“I give my kids’ schools a lot of trust and a lot of support, so I guess I’m just shocked when stuff like this happens,” said Czepiel, a mother of four whose son attended East High.
“At the same time, you just never know. … It’s sad, but these things can happen everywhere.”
School leaders say they have procedures and safeguards in place to deal with teachers accused of sexual misconduct and other inappropriate or illegal behavior. But several recent incidents in the Wichita area serve to remind administrators, parents and students that vigilance is key.
“It’s a reminder to our administrators that … we have to be very cognizant of what’s going on in our buildings between staff members and students,” said George Tignor, a longtime high school principal who now serves as head of human resources for the Goddard school district.
“You can’t turn a blind eye to something that might be wrong. Investigate it.”
Wichita and neighboring school districts don’t have specific guidelines for how teachers should behave with students outside of school. But they do govern how teachers should act at school.
Wichita bans sexual harassment of students, including “sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” The district also regularly trains teachers and administrators about sexual harassment.
Its policies call for employees who are charged with misdemeanors that could endanger schools or students to be suspended with pay or, in some cases, reassigned. Felony arrests bring automatic suspensions with pay.
School administrators and human resources officials say the safety of children at school is paramount. But districts also must be wary of false accusations when investigating harassment or other charges.
“There are those who think that where there’s smoke there’s always fire. The problem is, sometimes smoke is just smoke,” said David Schauner, general counsel for the Kansas National Education Association.
“The key is to conduct an investigation, make it thorough, ask the right questions.”
Not doing so can lead to costly lawsuits, as the Wichita district discovered seven years ago. In 2005, the district paid $365,000 to settle a suit filed by a woman who alleged that a former Truesdell Middle School teacher raped her.
The teacher, Earnest Overton, was convicted in 2002 of raping a second student and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. An investigator’s report filed as part of the lawsuit said parents and teachers had repeatedly complained to school administrators about Overton’s inappropriate behavior toward female students.
Deanna Gooch, head of human resources for the Maize school district, said districts “walk kind of a fine line” because they’re concerned about student safety but also bound to protect employees’ privacy and their right to due process.
“We investigate everything we’re made aware of and document what we investigate,” Gooch said. “We also talk to our teachers about the importance of being professional and maintaining boundaries … in the classroom and elsewhere.”
That boundary is a tightrope teachers and coaches walk every day as they interact with students, said Schauner, the KNEA attorney: to be friendly but keep the teacher-student relationship intact, to be careful without being standoffish.
In most cases teachers and coaches have to use their best judgment, said Tignor, the former Goddard principal. Most administrators discourage or even ban certain behavior, such as one-on-one lunches, travel or other private interactions with students, to ensure that teachers’ actions don’t appear inappropriate.
But “you can’t have a policy that covers everything that happens in a high school,” Tignor said. “There’s no way you could have a book that big.”
Schauner said teachers and coaches are important figures to students, including many who may not have other adults to trust. And the vast majority are caring, trustworthy influences.
“We don’t want to ever err on the side of being some cold fish who kids think doesn’t care about them,” he said. “That’s where the professional has to make their own decision about how they approach students, parents and colleagues.
“The one thing you have is your reputation, and we suggest strongly and repeatedly to people that they not put themselves in a position to be judged as someone acting inappropriately. … All we can do is continue to repeat that message.”