By Joseph H. Huber

Accused of Sexual Misconduct:
How Do Teachers Prevent False Accusations?

Fairfax Education Association
Special Report
Protect yourself
from sexual abuse charges

For years, teachers have been concerned about inappropriate verbal or physical abuse from students. Recently, however, teachers seem to be facing a new fear: student accusations of sexual misconduct

Alan Barbee, investigative specialist for the Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, notes that since 1986 there have been 111 allegations of sexual misconduct formally investigated by the county. Fifty-six of the cases were determined founded, 31 were unfounded, and 21 were inconclusive. Barbee said 22 school system employees have been arrested in the same eight-year period (Fairfax Journal, May 10, 1994).

Craig Gordon, 46, a teacher for 21 years and once nominated for Fairfax County Teacher of the Year, is one of the accused teachers. From March of 1993 until July of 1994, Gordon was placed in the untenuous position of having to defend himself against charges that he improperly touched female students while teaching elementary physical education.

Gordon was suspended and recommended for firing in April, 1993, by Fairfax County Public Schools Superintendent Robert Spillane after eight girls formally accused him of fondling them during class. His case has been highly publicized and was the focus of a fall, 1994, documentary by the CBS news show 48 Hours.

Under the Virginia Code, the School Board has the exclusive power to decide questions concerning the termination of teachers. A teacher who is recommended for termination has the right to an administrative hearing before the School Board. Gordon asked for the series of hearings to clear his name and to hopefully reverse the dismissal recommendation.

After ten nights of trial-like public hearings, fifty eight hours of testimony, and five hours of deliberations, the Fairfax County School Board voted 6-2 to uphold the Superintendent's recommendation to fire Gordon.

Summing up the case against Gordon, school system Attorney Anne Murphy said: "What you have here is a man who does bad things to young girls, and he's been doing it for a long time."

In his closing argument, Steven Stone, Attorney for Mr. Gordon, said, "this client was the victim of hysteria, political correctness... a changing society that once encouraged teachers to hug students to give encouragement."

Professional Implications

Following the Gordon hearings, the Editorial Page of the Fairfax Journal (July 22, 1994) noted that, "What's appropriate and what isn't haven't changed over the years, and we shudder if the day has arrived when handshakes are the warmest contact between teachers and students." Gary Reese, School Board member, had a different view. He said, "Let's define what is appropriate or inappropriate touching. We've got to give teachers' more help" (Fairfax Journal, June 27, 1994).

Glen Bayless, President of the Fairfax County Elementary Physical Education Teachers Association, also wants a list of standards that address appropriate and inappropriate teacher behavior. Bayless notes that, "This case points out that the informal rules have changed over time and physical education teachers are among those most vulnerable. Gymnastics, which is a major portion of the elementary physical education curriculum, requires a teacher to use manual manipulation and physical guidance to assure safety and success. But how do you protect yourself when you may be the only teacher in a gymnasium with a group of children?"

Rick Willis, Executive Director of the Fairfax Education Association (FEA), says that, 'The advice I give teachers is to keep their hands off kids-period. It's the only way teachers can protect themselves. Some teachers, therefore, may elect not to teach activities that require physical contact."

The FEA has issued a special bulletin recently entitled: Protect Yourself From Sexual Abuse Charges. The bulletin states that if teachers follow some simple rules, they can dramatically improve chances of not being accused of assaults against students. One such rule directs teachers to avoid being alone with a student in an enclosed space where a teacher cannot be observed by another adult.

Many schools now use metal detectors to ensure the safety of children and staff. Should school systems call upon additional technology to help sustain teachers' careers? Have we arrived at a point where physical education teachers must demand surveillance cameras in their gymnasiums to prevent false accusations? Would this be perceived as another case of big brother watching---an invasion of privacy? On the other hand, if surveillance can save the careers of teachers, shouldn't such cameras be used?