In New Jersey, the iron curtain separating students from teachers and staff when it comes to social networking has come down. The new rules forbid teachers from “friending” students on Facebook, giving them presents or rides and severely limit any interaction outside the school campus.
The strictures came about as a result of several high-profile cases of inappropriate relationships between school staff and their students which were widely covered in the local press. In recent years, the media reported on over 25 incidents in which teachers, coaches or school administrators were found to have questionable relationships with minors. One recent case involved an arrest of a teacher, who had signed his employment contract with a school earlier that day, getting arrested for sending sexually explicit text messages to someone he believed was a 12-year-old girl.
New Jersey isn’t the only state dealing with this issue. New York City, its neighbor across the Hudson has recently terminated at least 8 teachers and staff after allegations of abuse came to light. In February, arrests of two school workers for sexual assault, led the district superintendent Dennis Walcott to order a reexamination of all sexual misconduct complaints going back to 2000, and the four members of school staff and four tenured teachers were fired based on those reexamined complaints.
While the four aides have been immediately fired, the tenured teachers will still draw paychecks as the city goes through the long process of their termination. City officials have commented again on the arduousness of this procedure, even when sufficient evidence of gross misconduct exists, remarking that they tried to fire Polayes previously but it was reduced to suspension on arbitration.
Pennsylvania state Representative Michael Fitzgerald recently introduced a bill that would penalize all district administrators who abet teachers accused of sexual misconduct in quietly transferring out of the district and into a teaching job elsewhere. New Jersey is also looking at ways to make it easier for victims to sue both their abusers and the schools, as a means of forcing schools to be more careful about screening their staff.
But as someone who has prosecuted child sex abuse cases for 20 years, Joseph Del Russo said many schools still fail to enforce “bright-lines rules” about teacher-student relationships that offer little room for debate about what’s acceptable.
“There should be no ambiguity,” said Del Russo, chief assistant Passaic County prosecutor and head of the special victims unit.