Ignoring Student Reports Of Improper Educator Conduct Creates Liability Risk

In a lawsuit filed by a seventh-grade student's family, a Pennsylvania teacher is accused of initiating numerous incidents of non-consensual touching of the student. In particular, on many occasions, the teacher touched the student's hair and made comments about how attractive he was.

The attention was so obvious that other students allegedly made several comments to the student about the teacher, teasing him and saying "she's gonna rape you" and "she wants your babies."

When the victim reported this unwanted attention to another teacher, that teacher allegedly immediately dismissed him and told him "I would believe a teacher over a student like you."

After that, in December of 2023, although the student repeatedly told the teacher "no", she insisted on using a flat iron to straighten his hair in front of the other students, telling him that "this is what happens to bad boys". "The victim reportedly felt 'horrified" and 'shocked' after hearing the hissing steam of the iron against his hair and head." He allegedly suffered an intense scalp burn as a result of the unwanted interaction. The family alleges the teacher then "demanded a hug from the victim", which triggered a panic attack. He ran to the bathroom and contacted his mother.

This incident was witnessed by another teacher, who took images and sent them to yearbook staff and the offending teacher. The student was humiliated and left the school, altogether. The family filed a criminal complaint, as well as a civil suit.

The teacher was allowed to retire early in January 2024 to avoid termination. Isaac Embry, "Lawsuit claims teacher sexually harassed student, straightened their hair without consent" www.local12news.com (May 23, 2024).

Commentary and Checklist

According to the allegations, the actions of the accused were known or witnessed by other educators. Instead of rebuffing the reporting student ("I would believe a teacher over a student like you"), the educators should have reported the conduct to law enforcement or to the child protection services if they reasonably believed sexual abuse had occurred. If the educators have doubt that the conduct has reached the level of sexual abuse, they should report what was told to them and what they witnessed to superiors.   

What other steps can schools take to help avoid staff misconduct with students?

  • To prevent misconduct, make sure your school policies clearly outline appropriate boundaries for interactions between staff and students.
  • Be intentional in your hiring practices, and strictly follow a comprehensive screening procedure for all workplace participants, even those with personal recommendations.
  • Always include background checks, including criminal checks, child safety, and verification of certifications and personal references.
  • Establish clear behavioral guidelines and expectations, and hold all staff members to these guidelines regardless of their position.
  • Regularly train all staff members on your policies. Incorporate real-life examples when appropriate.
  • Require workplace participants to report any suspected staff misconduct.
  • Provide multiple reporting methods. Using a third-party reporting method helps achieve an objective and prompt response.
  • Incorporate into employee training information on your state's mandatory reporting laws, including when and how to report to your state's law enforcement.
  • Thoroughly document all procedures to promote student safety.
  • Make sure you have sufficient numbers of adults at all times to watch students, but also to observe how other adults interact with students.
  • Establish boundaries for digital communications. Do not allow digital communications between staff and students that do not include the students' parents and/or guardians.
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