Burden of Proof

In all honesty, the contemporary social climate has made it somewhat dangerous to be a high school teacher. And although I still believe it to be one of the noblest professions, the recent trend of accusing high-profile members of society (such as actors and politicians) has added an extra tight-wire to walk, especially for male teachers.

[In retrospect, I should have included this in my upcoming book, After 3PM]

I do not — and will not — imply that anything being said by the accusers of people like Kevin Spacey, Harvey Weinstein, or Bill Cosby are untrue. I don’t know all the fact and cannot come to a viable conclusion one way or the other, except to say one thing: Society always sides on the side of the accuser.

So what does this have to do with being a teacher — specifically a male teacher?

Schools themselves are microcosms of society, and therefore function with similar structures, rules, and norms as general society. So in a school society, it often seems that politicians are swapped for administrators and principals, and celebrities are swapped for popular students and popular teachers.

Students have no idea how easy it would be to take down a teacher.

All that is needed to bring down a teacher is a single allegation. If a student provides the administration or law enforcement with an allegation of abuse, coupled with some specific irrefutable/unprovable details, any teacher can be accused, arrested, fired, and maybe even imprisoned. (Like Gibbs always says, “Be specific when you lie.”) Telling a general lie like, “We had sex,” may not hold much weight because it’s vague and nonspecific. However, fictionalizing some very specific details within an allegation appears to lend it credibility — and there is really no way for the teacher to refute those allegations. Honestly, when allegations are made with “details,” it becomes incumbent upon the teacher to “prove a negative.” And this, in-and-of-itself, is impossible. How does a teacher prove he/she didn’t do something when the accusatory allegations are detailed?

The devil is, in fact, in the details.

I say that to say this: To prevent this at all cost, no teacher should ever be in a situation  with a student where these allegations could ever be made — no one-on-one time with any student, no outside-of-school time with a student — nothing which could provide a time frame for allegations.

I don’t presume to understand why false allegations are made, but I have several theories. If a teacher had a confrontation with a student (perhaps regarding grades or discipline), this would be the ultimate revenge. Or if a student with a difficult home/social life can be construed as a victim, this might provide a sense of sympathetic attention from his/her family and friends (even if they are not “publicized); culminating in a much-desired sense of caring and attention from their inner circle.

So the moral of the story is this: All relationships with all students should be kept on a socially appropriate and visual level. At no time should a teacher be in a situation when he/she is alone with a student and cannot be seen by another faculty member. If a student walks into the room and says, “Can we talk?” the best course of action is to step into the hallway in plain view of other people.

I do not say this because my former student falsely accused me. She didn’t. I was guilty of everything she said, and I pleaded guilty to those charges. But as an outside observer now, seeing (and experiencing) how the system operates, one fact is very apparent: The students have an unbelievably significant amount of power over their teachers.

Allegations ruin careers and ruin lives — true or not. In my case, the allegations were true and I deserved what I got. However, the other edge of that sword is equally as sharp.