Ethical Educator

Mr. M's Shoulder Massage
School Administrator, December 2018

Scenario: The newly hired high school principal comes to the superintendent because a new guidance counselor tells him a student confides she is uncomfortable with Mr. M, a math teacher, giving her a shoulder massage, as he apparently did to several other young women during a senior class meeting. The student tells her counselor she does not want the counselor to tell anyone and does not want the teacher to be confronted as she is certain he will fail her in advanced algebra. How should this proceed?

Meira Levinson: 
It sounds as if everyone needs a refresher course on handling sexual harassment allegations and other concerns about inappropriate teacher behavior toward students.

The counselor should have well-developed practices for informing students that while he respects and protects their confidentiality, he also is responsible for protecting students from harm, which includes reporting potential illegal behavior. He and the high school principal also should well know the district’s policies addressing reports of inappropriate teacher behavior.

For the sake of students and staff, the district should have clear procedures spelled out in advance for reporting of confidential information, the investigation process, monitoring or reassignment or suspension of adults during the investigation, student protections including reassignment of classes if needed and guidelines about resolution options and appropriate protections of students and staff moving forward. Due process cannot be ensured ad hoc.
Shelley Berman:
Students need to feel physically and emotionally safe in school, particularly in interactions with adults where a difference in power, authority and age could exert undue and inappropriate influence on a student. The counselor made the right decision in coming forward to inform the principal, as did the student in coming forward to the counselor.
The counselor needs to reassure the student that she was right to bring this incident to the attention of another adult. The counselor can reassure the student that she will do her best to protect the student’s identity, while explaining that the school must ensure that Mr. M does not continue to make her or other students feel uneasy. If there is scheduling flexibility, the counselor may also offer to make a schedule change and transfer the student to another teacher’s advanced algebra class, without identifying to Mr. M. the real reason for the change. It is important for the student to understand that the school needs to document this and other incidents to protect all students from inappropriate behavior. The counselor should encourage the student to report any other past or future concerning actions or statements made by Mr. M.
The principal has an obligation to investigate further and determine whether disciplinary action is warranted. Although the teacher may not have had ill intent and may have meant the shoulder massage as a gesture of support, it is not appropriate to touch students in this manner, regardless of the student’s or teacher’s gender. Not only can this conduct make students uncomfortable, but, viewed through a different lens, such touching could be a form of grooming behavior by a child predator. Because both the principal and the guidance counselor are new, they may have no knowledge of any prior incidents involving Mr. M. Therefore, the principal needs to begin the investigation by examining personnel records and incident reports that may reveal a pattern of behavior.
Because this behavior occurred at a senior class meeting and other young women may have had a similar experience at other meetings, the principal needs to interview teachers who were present at this and previous meetings that Mr. M attended. Because the student reported that other students had been similarly touched, the principal needs to interview any student who was reported as having been touched. The interviews must be carefully crafted to solicit information while not creating rumors that could unduly damage the teacher’s reputation, particularly if this was a first and isolated incident.
Based on his investigation, the principal needs to meet with Mr. M, after recommending that he bring either union or legal representation, to make clear the inappropriateness of touching students and the resulting discomfort that undermines the teacher-student relationship. If documentation reveals a student’s name, Mr. M should be emphatically advised that any attempt at retaliation will be severely punished. If the investigation reveals a pattern of misbehavior or gives rise to greater concern, disciplinary action or dismissal may be appropriate.
Maggie Lopez:
The superintendent should direct the principal to follow up on the student’s concern. The principal and counselor need to talk to the teacher and explain the concern, while protecting the student’s identity. 

Prior to this meeting with the teacher, they should determine if the senior class meeting was held in an area with security cameras. If so, they could review the footage to see if the teacher is observed massaging any student’s shoulders. If the teacher is engaging in this behavior, then the conversation with the teacher can focus on redirecting his behavior so that it stops immediately. Following this discussion with the teacher, the counselor can follow up with the student to assure her that the issue has been addressed and that her confidentiality has been maintained.   

If the alleged behavior did not take place in an area where there are security cameras, then the principal and counselor’s conversation with the teacher will focus on discussing the student’s concern (while protecting the student’s identity) and getting the teacher’s response. If the teacher says there is truth to the allegation, the principal should direct him to stop this behavior immediately and review appropriate student/teacher boundaries and expectations. If the teacher denies the allegation, then the principal should ask the teacher what might cause a student to make this statement. The teacher may have important information for the principal and counselor.  The counselor then should talk further with the student who raised the issue and the other students who she thinks may have had a similar experience with this teacher. 

At the conclusion of these discussions, the principal and counselor should be able to determine the facts and take appropriate measures with the student and/or the teacher depending on what was learned.

Max McGee:

Credit the new counselor and principal with taking action to report the incident up the chain. Too often behavior like Mr. M’s can go unreported for fear of retaliation against students; for attributing it to the adult’s personality (e.g. “He’s always been a hugger”); for dismissing it as just a one-off incident; and for a host of other misguided rationale. The fact is that the teacher’s actions as reported by the student meets the federal government’s definition of sexual harassment: “Unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature. It includes … nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature.” Thus, it must be investigated.

After commending both staff members, the superintendent needs to immediately take five actions: (1) tell the counselor that he or she will need to let the student know that the school district will be investigating the allegation because the law requires it and that she will be protected; (2) tell the principal that he must meet with the teacher and let him know that an allegation of “unwelcome, uncomfortable” touching that constitutes sexual harassment has been reported, that the district is opening a Title IX investigation into his action, and that pending the outcome of the investigation, he may be subject to disciplinary action as he will if there is any evidence of retaliation; (3) direct the Title IX Coordinator to launch an immediate investigation regarding both the specific allegations and the extent to which the teacher’s actions have and/or are creating a hostile learning environment; (4)  inform the district’s attorney and communications officer; and (5) inform the board members.

While many administrators still think that Title IX just regards assuring equal facilities, opportunities and access for male and female students, it is much more. Moreover, although the student did not want the counselor to tell anyone, the Title IX law notes, “Even if a student or his or her parent does not want to file a complaint or does not request that the school take any action on the student’s behalf, if a school knows or reasonably should know about possible sexual harassment or sexual violence, it must promptly investigate to determine what occurred and then take appropriate steps to resolve the situation.” Here is a helpful link for school leaders regarding guidelines:

Once the investigation is completed, the superintendent, principal, human resources director and/or Title IX officer must provide a written report to both the complainant (the girl) and the respondent (the teacher) describing what the investigation found and what corrective action, if any, will be taken. Ideally, regardless of the outcome, once the investigation is concluded, the superintendent will again make the time to visit the school to personally meet with and thank the new counselor, principal and student for taking quick action.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.