Ethical Educator

Shielding From Danger?
School Administrator, May 2016

A high school student tells a teacher she does not want to go home the day before winter break because she fears her mother’s boyfriend. The teacher takes the student home with her, then contacts the mother, who insists her daughter be brought home immediately. The student calls her father living in a bordering state, who promises to pick up his daughter the next day and grants permission for the daughter to remain overnight with the teacher. Following the break, the principal and superintendent learn the father has taken his daughter to his residence. The mother is livid. What actions should they take?

Kelly Henson:
The first issue that must be addressed is the educator’s lack of proper action regarding the student’s assertion that she fears her mother’s boyfriend. The teacher should have immediately reported the information to the principal or principal’s designee. The principal is charged with reporting to the proper social service/child protection agency and/or law enforcement – whatever is required by state code and/or board policy.
Disciplinary action against the teacher is warranted in this case as failure to report is a serious violation.

The second issue is the teacher’s decision to take the student home with her and likely ignore a custody agreement by allowing the father to take the student to his home. Both of these represent serious errors in judgment by the teacher and, at a minimum, require disciplinary action. Law enforcement also may have interest in the teacher’s decision to take the student home and the fact that the teacher’s actions led to the father (presumptive noncustodial parent) taking the student to his home. And, the fact that the father lives out of state makes this a potentially even more serious error in judgment.
Sarah Mackenzie:
It’s hard to say for certain whether the teacher, as a mandated reporter, should have notified the state’s human services department or followed the school’s policy and notified the principal or guidance counselor. It seems, though, that the young woman must have had a reason for being afraid that probably would have fallen into an “abused or neglected” category.  

At any rate, the teacher should have discussed the situation with someone else at the school, such as a social worker, counselor or principal. Furthermore, the teacher should not have taken the student home. These kinds of situations are always dicey when there are divorced parents and possible custody issues involved. That’s why someone knowledgeable about the law and schools’ responsibilities as well as aware of the details of a particular situation must be consulted and his or her advice followed.

In this case, a teacher’s compassionate action has likely led to more complications for the child and the school. The impulse to protect a child and to attempt to alleviate a situation by intruding into it is understandable, but the teacher went too far. The teacher definitely deserves a reprimand. Somehow, other teachers need to be made aware of the severity of the offense. Furthermore, clear steps to follow in situations such as this need to be reiterated to all staff members.

Mario Ventura:
It appears the teacher had good intentions, but her actions created a situation where trust in the profession was impaired and district policy was broken. The teacher should have brought the student’s situation to the attention of the principal, the school’s child abuse reporting team or a police officer. A more objective school employee trained in dealing with these issues or a public safety official could have assisted in determining whether the student’s personal safety was at risk, as well as determine how to respond in accordance with school policy and the law.

Also, the superintendent should notify the district’s attorney to get guidance on an investigation and to identify legal implications for the district. The teacher should be placed on leave for transporting a student in her vehicle and for having the student stay the night in her home. Although the father granted permission for the daughter to stay the night with the teacher, the teacher crossed the boundary of an appropriate teacher and student relationship. The teacher could have placed the student at greater risk while believing she was being helpful and protecting her from the mother’s boyfriend. The teacher’s relationship with the student impaired her better judgement and could damage her career as an educator.

Shelley Berman:
The teacher’s compassion and the trusting relationship she has developed with the student are commendable. The student’s alerting the teacher to her fear of the mother’s boyfriend was an important first step in securing assistance to address the situation. Ethically and legally, the teacher had a responsibility to help ensure the child’s safety. However, there are serious problems with the way this teacher chose to respond.

Schools and other institutions that work with children and youth are generally required to provide all staff with training on mandated reporting. As a mandated reporter, the teacher has a legal responsibility to report to the school principal, the police or the state’s child welfare department as soon as she is aware that a child is at risk of physical or emotional injury or neglect. In this case, the teacher faces repercussions for ignoring her obligation to report, thereby violating school procedures and administrative policies. Her failure to report has left her vulnerable to such consequences as the loss of her teaching license, fines or even prison.

There are good reasons for these reporting requirements. The teacher is not an investigator. Although she may think she understands the situation, she does not have the background, training or authority to appropriately investigate the student’s allegations or address her concerns.

In fact, the teacher’s actions could have inadvertently placed the student in even greater jeopardy. It is possible that a family court had considered the evidence before it and either awarded sole legal custody to the mother or placed limitations on the father’s contact with his daughter.

In addition, taking the student home without consulting her administrator or other authorities and against the will of the mother leaves the teacher open to legal claims. The school does not have custodial rights and, by taking this action unilaterally, the teacher has inserted herself into a family situation without knowing the legal relationships among family members and with no authority to intervene. Although the teacher may have had the best of intentions, her action could be considered kidnapping or custodial interference by the parent and/or by law enforcement. Acting as a school employee, she has also placed the school and district at risk of liability.

The teacher’s concern for the student’s welfare was admirable. However, taking the student home with her reflected poor judgment, a lack of professional boundaries, and disregard for state laws and administrative procedures. Upon hearing the student’s apprehension, the teacher should have immediately met with the principal, guidance counselor, school social worker or nurse to report what she had learned and discuss how best to support the student’s safety. If those individuals were not available, she should have contacted the police or the state’s child welfare agency. Depending on the degree of risk the student was experiencing at home, community resources might have provided assistance or lodging while the home situation was properly investigated.

The principal, having become aware of the situation after the fact, needs to immediately file a report with the appropriate state authorities. The principal should provide the teacher with the opportunity to explain her decisions and discuss with her the inappropriateness of her intervention. It is highly likely that the principal will also need to take disciplinary action. The state may pursue its own action against the teacher, including the possible revocation of her teaching license.

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.; Kelly Henson, executive director, Georgia Professional Standards Commission; Sarah MacKenzie, associate professor of educational leadership, University of Maine at Orono; and Mario Ventura, superintendent, Isaac School District, Phoenix, Ariz., and member of the Model Code of Educator Ethics Task Force.