“Beyond the Silhouette” (Book Excerpt) – Chapter 8

 

Chapter 8

Epidemic

Whether or not school officials and administrators want to admit it, the issue of improper student-teacher relationships has reached epidemic proportions. This is troubling for many reasons, one of which is that experts agree that a majority of these relationships are never reported. It is estimated that approximately five percent of teachers have had some sort of inappropriate interaction or relationship with a student.

To put this into perspective, allow this example: As a teacher at Wichita East High School, I had approximately 150 fellow teachers in my building. Therefore, statistics indicate that as many as seven (or more) teachers may have either had or are currently having an inappropriate relationship with a student – in one building. Of course, this is not factually supported about this particular school, but statistically, it is entirely possible.

This issue is not adequately addressed and teachers are rarely (if ever) trained and prepared to handle teaching on a personal level. Never once as a teacher was I ever advised on how to handle the advances of a student. The most I can ever recall being told about the issue was an annual one-sentence caution to “avoid compromising positions.” And while many would remark, “That should be common sense,” the issue is much deeper and more complex than one simple cautionary statement during the principal’s yearly sexual harassment lecture.

Gender is not an issue either. Experts also agree that male and female teachers are both guilty of contributing to this epidemic. Though the stereotype may indicate that male teachers are far more likely to engage in this behavior, facts and statistics do not support any sort of majority either way. The fact of the matter is this: Male or female, teachers are human beings, capable of making mistakes.

Understandably, categorizing this as a “mistake” may seem like the situation is being down-played. However, when seeking the genuine reasoning behind this epidemic, it cannot be ignored that in many (or most) of these instances, it is not a case of an older person seeking a younger target for the purposes of sexual gratification, but is instead an instance of an otherwise well-meaning person allowing his/herself to fall into a very bad situation. By acknowledging this, educators will be able to better guard themselves against one of the major causes of this epidemic: Teachers are forced to spend more time with their students and less time with their friends and families due to an over-worked and under-paid profession that is constantly demanding more while offering less. But again, this is not an offer of blame or alleviation of responsibility. It is simply an additional contributing factor to this issue. It’s simple to point a finger and say “Sicko!” or “Pedophile!” or “Pervert!” But the fact of the matter is, none of that fear and hate-fueled finger-pointing does anything to remedy the situation, and in most cases, actually makes the situation worse.

Granted, there are instances where teachers have relationships with students with strictly predatory motives. For example, in Olathe, Kansas in 2012, Michelle Preston, a 28-year-old female teacher was convicted of using Facebook to lure multiple male students to her house for the purposes of sex, and it was discovered that she did in fact have sexual intercourse with several underage male students. Thus, a teacher who actively pursues multiple students for sex is undoubtedly a predator.

Shortly after her accusations were publicized, Ms. Preston attempted suicide by driving her SUV off of a bridge. She survived.

Nevertheless, of all the instances of inappropriate teacher-student relationships, this type of case is in the minority. The instances that gain media attention are only a small portion of this issue. And characterizing every teacher in the same category as Ms. Preston is errant and ignorant. The truth is – as supported by research – a vast majority of teacher-student relationships are never known about or publicized. But the negative effect that this has on the student is the same none-the-less.

Students look to teachers for leaders, role-models, and guidance. When a teacher engages in a relationship with a student, it can be devastating to their outlook on school, adults, and even life as a whole. They end up being unsure who they can trust, putting up emotional barriers, and becoming distant from friends and family. Being a teacher is a trusted position. Parents give teachers their children for nearly the entire day, five days a week, and expect educators to make them better students, harder workers and better people. This is not an unreasonable request on the part of parents, but when a teacher engages in a relationship with a student, he/she has severely violated the trust that parents place within their students’ teachers.

As I fell into this epidemic, none of this was at the forefront of my thinking. However, now, as a father of a young girl, I place an immense amount of trust in my daughter’s teachers, and if a male teacher had the same relationship with her as I had with my former student, my rage would be unending. I do not – at all – blame her parents for reporting me. As a parent, I would have done the same. And while my willingness to take full responsibility for my action is important, my heart is also broken for what we did. The fact that we were both willing participants in the relationship is irrelevant. As a teacher, I lost sight of what was right, what was proper, and what was best for my students, despite the fact that she was a) No longer my student, and b) No longer attending the school where I taught.

At the nucleus of this epidemic, there is one root cause: Teachers begin to view students as equals rather than subordinates, seeking approval and status in the eyes of students for social reasons rather than seeking approval and status in the eyes of colleagues for professional reason. Teaching is a job, and students are a product of that job. When the student-teacher barrier is blurred or breached, that product is damaged, and that teacher has failed at his/her job.

Every epidemic has a cure. In this case, the cure is transparency, awareness, and education. Teachers, school administrators, and future teachers in college must be made aware of this issue. Someone must be willing to stand up for this cause in order to teach those who teach others, to save students of the future from suffering the same betrayal of my student of the past. In all my time as a teacher, I never once heard of anyone telling this aspect of the story. Sure, there were people harping about bullying, teen pregnancy, and drugs, but it’s as if society forgets that teachers – contrary to popular belief – are human too, and also make mistakes.

Amanda Todd

By now, many of you have heard of Amanda Todd.

She was a girl in Canada who, in a moment of indiscretion, revealed herself physically to a stranger on her webcam. As a result, the individual to whom she was webchatting took the image and began to stalk her with it, eventually sending it to hoards of people, including students at her school (even after she switched schools), which led to incessant bullying. In the midst of this bullying, she posted a YouTube Video  explaining her situation, pleading with the world not to bully her. It eventually got to the point that she was beaten up and left in a muddy ditch, and then attempted suicide by drinking bleach. But after all this, her classmates persisted with comments such as:

“she deserved it”

“did you wash the mud out of your hair?”

“I hope shes dead.”

“She should try a different bleach”

“I hope she dies this time and isn’t so stupid.”

“I hope she sees this and kills herself.”

In her video, she said, “Why do I get this? I messed up…” She understood that she made a terrible mistake, and that what she’d done was coming back to haunt her, when all she wanted to do was move on. But the bullying, the hateful online comments persisted, until she hanged herself, satisfying the comments demanding her death.

First of all, I am not comparing myself or my situation to that of Amanda Todd. However, there is a connective aspect that I think should be explained and explored. I too made a mistake and simply wanted to move on with my life. But when this came to light, I was also the target of hateful and inappropriate online comments, mostly posted on online articles and Facebook. Here is a sample of what was posted:

“HANG EM”

“Hope he makes some “nice” new friends in prison”

“These people are sick, can’t be cured.”

“Chester the Molester”

“Thats why they need castration!”

“If he is found guilty, HANG ‘EM HIGH sounds like a good deal”

“tall tree, short rope, the only rehabilitation”

While I believe that my actions may have merited public outcry and I was completely wrong in what I allowed my former student and I to do together, how are these comments (and the countless others like them) any different from the bullying comments that were made toward Amanda Todd? Again, please understand that I am not comparing the two of us, but rather, I am pointing out the similarities in how people callously made hateful comments online. Other comments posted online included hateful rhetoric aimed at my wife, my mother, my father, and even my six-year-old daughter. Is this any better that the teenage bullies that told Amanda Todd that she needed to drink more bleach? She made the mistake of exposing herself to a man online. I made the mistake of having a brief relationship (that did not include sex) with a former student. Was mine worse? Yes. But if you are one of the individuals posting hateful and violent comments online, please ask yourself, are you any better than those who cyberbullied Amanda Todd? And, in your criticisms, is your life a perfect example of morality? I read a quote once that said, “Before you judge me, make sure you’re perfect first.”

God has forgiven me of my sin. I have spent the last two-and-a-half years begging Christ for his forgiveness regarding what happened between me and my former student. What we did together was 100% wrong and I allowed it to happen. That is my fault. Her advances toward me, her repeated after-school visits to my classroom (even though she wasn’t a student at my school anymore), were all things that I should have put an immediate stop to, but I didn’t. And for that, I take full responsibility and will forever pay the price.

Do you have the inclination to post a hateful or violent comment? And if so, what makes you any different than those individuals who pushed Amanda Todd to suicide?

Food for thought…

 

1 Timothy 1:15-16

“Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world save sinners – of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who believe in him and receive external life.”

It wasn’t until recently that I became aware of this verse. It’s not that I never studied deep enough to find it, but rather, I believe that God waited until this point in my life to reveal this scripture to me. I would venture to say that multitudes of people would quickly categorize me as “the worst of sinners” and I wouldn’t disagree. The mistake I made in my career and personal life was a terrible misstep in my life, but I am blessed to know that the forgiveness of Jesus Christ is with me, which leads me to the second part of that verse. My prayer is that people will see the light of Jesus in me, and see that even in the worst of sins, that the salvation of Christ is available for anyone, even me.

I have begged God to forgive me for what I did, something that many people view as simply unforgivable. So if you’re reading this, and you have something dark in your past, please know that no sin is too big, too dark, or too horrible, because the forgiveness of Jesus Christ knows no limits. If God can forgive my transgressions, he can certainly forgive yours. If you want to know how to seek God’s forgiveness, look up (or Google) 1 John 1:9. If you want to see how simple it is, read that scripture. All it takes is faith. Believe.

Two options…

I stopped at QuikTrip this evening and saw a former student who is now in college. He apparently hadn’t heard about my situation and asked me if I was still teaching. I humbly said no, and when he asked why not, I simply said, “Google me.”

He did, and came up to me as I was putting gas in my car. He asked for some explanation, and after talking for about fifteen minutes, he said, “I’m sorry you’re going through this, but Brundage, I support you no matter what. We all make mistakes, bro.”

It was encouraging that he was willing to see it as a mistake. I explained that my situation was my own fault, and he was receptive of this. He didn’t judge me, he didn’t ridicule me, he simply understood that I did something terrible, and now I am facing those consequences. And when I told him that I was seeking to speak to educators about this, to help prevent it from happening to others, he gave me encouragement and wished me luck. His attitude is the type of perspective that helps solve the problem rather than simply throwing hateful speech and name-calling into the air.

I read the comments people leave on the news stories online. People have said some pretty hateful things about me – people that don’t even know me. Yes, what I did was terrible, but I simply think that calling for my execution might be a bit much. I specifically remember one that said something to the effect of, “Tall tree, short rope. The best rehabilitation.” My question to this individual would be, “How does this help solve this problem?”

The public has two options: Seek vengeance against me, or, Seek a solution to the greater issue at hand. Simply punishing those who commit these acts is not an effective deterrent, as evidenced by how much this is happening all over the country. Yet, no one seems to be taking a proactive approach at addressing the issue. As I say in my book, this problem is only being addressed after it happens. That changes now.