Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Too Close to Home

Some things just hit too close to home and this is one of them.  A teacher at the private school my children attended for one year was arrested on sodomy charges. The charges were levied by a former student. Whether or not this teacher is innocent or guilty is beyond the scope of this posting at the moment. What is important is my frantic search to understand the timeline of events, and my being appalled at the reaction of the adults in charge.
This is one of those stories where context is important. The teacher involved is the son of the owner/administrator of the school. This isn’t his first brush was “allegations”. In 2007 he had a jury trial regarding harassment of a student. He was found “not guilty” by a jury of his peers. However, here is what I found out about the incident: 1. The incident was caught on tape by the student. 2. The student had done poorly on a spelling test and the teacher read her wrong answers aloud to the class. 3. The teacher poked the student in the arm (and the student alleges in the stomach as well) as he “ribbed” her about her test. 4. The student testified to being “devastated” while the other students testified she smiled during the incident. 5. The teacher alleges he was just trying to make her feel better. Those are the known facts. While I don’t quite know why the jury believed this teacher wasn’t guilty of harassment, I am sure this is a least a form of bullying. What makes this most disturbing is that this behavior is completely outside of the Reggio foundation of the school. Reggio schools are supposed to be places where students are respected, empowered, given a voice, and the wholeness of the child is put above the pursuit of grades. This philosophy isn’t for every family, but the families that place their children in such environments want that environment for their children. You can have your child ridiculed for bad grades for free, no need to pay a school $10,000 a year to make that happen. Now it isn’t just “innocent ribbing” that is being alleged, but charges of sodomy.
When we became a part of the school in 2010, we were looking for a Reggio environment and this school reported to us that this was in fact what they provided. We were never informed that there was this “one time” when things didn’t work out so well. Our time at the school was nothing short of a duel universe. The teachers that were great, were great (the kids Mandarin teacher for instance), however, there were those absolutely mediocre to unacceptable experiences as well. We met with the owner and administrative staff on several occasions about our concerns. First there was my eldest, who we believed had reading issues. I was sat down and spoken to like a child, not like a woman with a Master’s degree in Education and told he was perfectly age appropriate. Thankfully we aren’t stupid and took my son for testing. Not only was he dyslexic, he had severe eye teaming, tracking, and convergence issues. Had I succumbed to the belittling and believed someone simply because they had years upon years in the field my child might still be suffering today. But, what really got us into gear concerned one of my three year old’s being bullied not by a student, but in our minds a teacher. We were led to believe this was all in our head. Of course, my husband and I knew something wasn’t quite right. Plans were in place for us to do what needed to be done, home school.
Looking back, everyone always whispered about the “other hall”. See, this private school is one of the most beautiful schools I have ever seen. The most spectacular natural light, acres for children to run and play, a library most schools would kill for, it is how I would design a school. But there was something not quite right with one hall, the “big kids” hall. There is a sharp decline in enrollment as people get closer to the “big kids” hall. What starts as a preschool with 30 – 40 children becomes a 6 – 8th grade combined class with eight or less kids. What the heck happens when they turn the hall? That hall has “this” teacher. Most people start to vocally make plans about leaving the school as soon as their children reach “that hall”. In fact, they opened a new 3rd grade class in the “little kids” hall because the 3rd grade parents threatened to leave the school if their kids were sent to “that hall”. There was some secret, something that everyone knew, but no one would say. This brings us to the arrest this week.
The schools “official response” was that this was stemming from an old issue that had been investigated in the past and shown not to have merit. Really? You get arrested from an “old issue” that was found to have no merit? Then came all the claims that some kid was just lying, this was old stuff, this teacher is so great. All I could hear in my head was the parade of Sandusky apologist who vowed he was innocent all the way until the parade of victims took the stand. Now, I absolutely know that teachers have been falsely accused of molestation; I am not saying this isn’t possible. This teacher should have a fair trial in a court of law. This isn’t about courts, but about classrooms. How much information are parents allowed to have to make decisions about who gets access to their children? I argued constantly with people about the Sandusky/Penn State issue that even if Sandusky never went to trial, parents should have been made aware that a molestation charge was leveled against Sandusky back in the 90’s, even if it was investigated and no action was taken. Parents should have the option to decide for themselves if the “where there is smoke, there is fire” adage applies. I had no idea at the time I was arguing for myself, for my voice, for my rights. I had no idea that down “that hall” was a teacher who had allegations levied against him before my eldest was even born. I sat there, looking in the eyes of school administrators, owners, teachers, expecting everyone to be straight up and honest with me about the atmosphere my young, innocent children would be going in to. I expected to be given an opportunity to make an informed choice about where my children went to school. The thing about a Reggio environment is that is requires teachers to have impeccable integrity. There is a laid back atmosphere and the iron clad walls and chains of command found in traditional schools are replaced with large windows, comfortable relaxed seating, as well as age mingling. Teachers giving hugs, parents roaming the halls, kids having freedom and choice – this happens in an environment filled with trust. I am angry that while my husband and I held up our end of the bargain, this school and staff reneged from the beginning by choosing not to disclose this very real issue.
So now I am going over in my mind every contact I remember with my children having with this teacher. Did I miss something? The chances are almost 100% that my children were completely safe. However, isn’t that what every parent feels? No one sends their child off with a pedophile, suspected pedophile, or accused pedophile when they “think” something might happen. Pedophiles are smarter than that, better than that. I never thought our one year experiment is a somewhat traditional school setting would put us so close to what every parent fears. It’s hard knowing the dread you felt every time you dropped your kids off was justified. People like to call it irrational parental fear or being a helicopter parent, until you get this close. Until you know there were secrets no one chose to disclose, choices taken away from you as a parent, situations your child was put into that you never wanted them in. I could have gone another 10 years without having to discuss “sodomy” with my children and been a happier person for it. That was taken away from me not by a stranger, but by a group of people whom I thought we had a mutual agreement of respect and trust between us. Well world, that swishing sound you hear every time you see my children will be my propellers going full speed, this “helicopter parent” will be coming in for a landing each and every time now. However, before you judge a "helicopter parent", know we didn’t all start this way.

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