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Incident at North leads to more talk about ethics; school officials revisit rules against inappropriate contact between teachers, students

By Kathy Chaffin
kchaffin@salisburypost.com
News of a North Rowan High School teacher being charged with sexual activity with students has left Rowan-Salisbury School System administrators very frustrated and looking for ways to keep it from happening again.
Dr. Walter Hart, assistant superintendent for administration, said the 40 felony charges filed against Matthew Miles Price reflect badly on the thousands of educators who are working hard to be good role models for young people.
“Clearly, you’ve got an individual that’s operating in a way that the school system does not condone and no reasonable person would,” he said.
“It bothers me so much that this kind of behavior gives all of us a black eye.”
Delores Morris, assistant superintendent of human resources, agreed.
“Most teachers care about students in the right and proper way,” Morris said, “and when something like this happens, they have a hard time understanding why …
“They become, I think, disappointed and angry would be the terms that I would use that someone would have fallen outside of the guidelines of professional behavior.”
Price, a 28-year-old physical education teacher at North, was charged Sept. 16 with having sexual relations with three female students, all minors, over a 15-month span beginning in May 2008 and ending in August.
Spencer police allege most of the incidents occurred at his Harrison Street home, located about two blocks from the school. One incident is believed to have occurred at school in Price’s office, according to police.
Price resigned on Aug. 12, the same day he was confronted by police, the parents of one of the girls and the school principal in a meeting at the school.
Each time something like this happens, Morris said the main focus of administrators and principals is to do everything possible to keep it from happening again.
“I would venture to say that every principal in our school system will be having a conversation with their staff within two weeks of this happening,” she said.
Morris said she is reviewing policies addressing staff interactions with students to see if they need strengthening and has asked principals to meet with teachers “and stress the expectations that we have for them to be ethically professional.”
Principals are also being asked to review the N.C. Code of Ethics for Educators, she said.
The code, in Section 1-B, states that educators are to maintain “an appropriate relationship with students in all settings” and “not encourage, solicit, or engage in a sexual or romantic relationship with students, nor touch a student in an inappropriate way for personal gratification, with intent to harm, or out of anger.”
Morris said the code of ethics and the importance of professional conduct is also stressed throughout the curriculum for students studying education in colleges and universities.
Hart said he has addressed the topic while speaking to students interested in education at Career Day at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Beginning teachers are given extensive training in appropriate interactions with students, according to Susan Heaggans, beginning teacher coordinator for the school system.
This is covered in a weeklong orientation for new teachers, and Heaggans said participants are required to sign a form stating that they have been to the training and understand the school system’s expectations.
Morris said principals also review the system’s expectations for professional conduct with experienced teachers during orientation in August and throughout the year.
“It’s not just one time a year,” she said. “This is stressed to our educators through the year many, many times.
“I guess that’s why it’s so hard to understand when somebody falls outside those guidelines because they do know the guidelines and the expectations. That’s the frustrating part.”
Hart expressed similar views. “I don’t think any person in our schools can argue that they don’t know that that kind of interaction is inappropriate.”
Morris said the school system’s “Handbook for Beginning Teachers and Mentors,” which is given to every beginning teacher upon being hired, addresses their interactions with students and gives examples of what is appropriate.
“We have a big ‘Zero Tolerance Page’ in the middle of the book to express that there is just no acceptance of any of that,” she said.
Hart said he meets with the coaching staff at each school to talk about what is appropriate interactions with athletes and what isn’t because they have contact with students beyond the regular school day. Band directors and assistant directors are given extra training for the same reason.
“It does create the opportunity for negative things to occur,” Hart said. “That’s why we caution them and say things like, ‘Don’t be alone with a student. Don’t do a special favor for a student beyond what you’re doing for other students.’
“Oftentimes, what it really boils down to is just good common sense, which unfortunately, as the saying goes, isn’t always that common.”
Administrators said teachers are encouraged to talk to their principals about any situations with students that make them uncomfortable.
When he was a principal, Hart said he had teachers come to him with such concerns as student having crushes on them.
“In cases like this, we involve the parents and talk to counselors,” he said. “Having a teenage crush is a normal part of being a teenager, and we as adults have to respond to that in an appropriate professional manner.”
Morris said students having crushes on teachers is more common in elementary schools.
As for situations with students that make teachers feel uncomfortable, she said it is important for them to have open communication with principals and administrators. “If we know something is starting, there is usually a way to get it stopped before it becomes a major issue.”
Morris said teachers who suspect another teacher is interacting inappropriately with a student are obligated by the school system’s policy to report it to someone in authority. Students are also encouraged to talk to guidance counselors or other faculty if they’re having any problems with teachers, she said.
Heaggans said it’s important to address situations before they get out of control because once something happens, it’s too late.
“Somewhere along the line, somebody loses their good sense and doesn’t think about the repercussions of their actions,” she said, “and their career is over as far as teaching is concerned.”
Morris said school systems are required to report inappropriate interactions between teachers and students to the state superintendent and district attorney’s office.
“Once we get a resignation for personal reasons and we think allegations have been made, we report it immediately,” she said. “When the charges come, we report that charges have been filed.”
Once charges are filed, Morris said the teacher cannot get another teaching position in North Carolina until the case goes to court.
“Then if they’re convicted,” she said, “their license is revoked.”
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249.

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