Does Bad Culture Equal Bad Teacher?

by Marc Epstein

These days teacher-student sexual liaisons have become de rigueur. Just Google “teacher–student sex” and you’ll get about ten million hits.

Last week the New York Post reported that a former middle school teacher, a 37 year-old married mother of four, sent sexually explicit Snapchat videos to two students and had sex with one of them who was 16 years old.

The incident occurred in West Fargo, North Dakota, and was clearly not the product of big city decadence.

Some of you may be thinking, “Why didn’t I have a teacher like that?” But in real life these occurrences don’t resemble the plot of a Hollywood teenage fantasy movie that usually involves a struggling student and an alluring young teacher who manage to wind up in a sexual liaison, pass the course, and go on to live happily ever after.

For example, there’s the case of the Bronx teacher who plead guilty to raping a 10-year-old student in 2014.

Anthony Criscuolo said he never touched the girl. He claimed he was set-up by the mother of the victim after he broke off an affair with her. The court didn’t buy it, and he was sentenced to 14 years for rape.

Or how about the 8th grade teacher at Stovall Middle School in Houston, Texas, who became pregnant after repeated liaisons with a thirteen-year-old student she met during a summer school session.

A 2014 study showed that Alabama had the highest per capita rate for teacher sexual misconduct, but Texas led the nation with 116 convictions.                                                       

When I was attending public school, student – teacher relationships were mostly driven by a combination of peer competition and fear of failure, not sexual attraction to your teacher and visa versa.

Most of my teachers appeared old enough to be my grandmother. When it came to student – teacher attraction, the only example I can site is the crush Jackie Cooper and Chubby had on Miss Crabtree in the Little Rascals.

But all that has changed. Between 2002 and 2012, the number of overall complaints made for teacher and employee misconduct more than doubled in New York City.

Out of 795 investigations on charges of misconduct by employees in the school system in 2012, 57 that concerned sexual misconduct were substantiated. The majority of the offenders were teachers.

The spike in these numbers is repeated nationwide in rural, suburban, and other urban settings. The demographic of the offenders makes no distinction based on race, gender, ethnicity, income level, or political affiliation. 

The Associated Press reported that for their investigation into teacher sexual misconduct they obtained disciplinary records in the 50 states and Washington D.C. The AP found that 2,570 teachers lost their teaching credentials from 2001 to 2005, when they were found guilty of those charges. 

But aside from the purported shock, outrage, and crafting of more sexual offender laws by our politicians, you’ll also notice that there is almost no discussion about the inadequacy of the screening and hiring procedures for our teachers.

There are cries for speeding up the firing process for miscreants, but you won’t find anyone in authority attempting to define what used to be called “moral fiber” when it comes to hiring teachers.

Why is that you might ask?

I would suggest that it is because the idea of what we once referred to as virtue has vanished from our very fragmented, toxic culture.

Without a shared definition of normative behavior the basis for determining the “worth” or “character” of a teacher during the hiring process has vanished.

The make-up of our schools is a microcosm of our society at large, and that adults behaving badly reflect what Charles Murray dubbed “the coming apart “of the American family structure. So it should come as no surprise that what was once called “moral turpitude” is now a staple of our society. 

Just how do those numbers play out in the real world? In an essay entitled “Marriage, Parenthood, and Public Policy,” Ron Haskins provides an insightful exposition on just how radically the American family has evolved over the past few decades

Here are some of his findings. Since the 1970 census when 83% of women between the ages of 30 to 34 were married, the number has fallen to 57%.

As you might expect, the out of wedlock births across the demographic spectrum has gone from 11% to 41%.

These changes have profound consequences.Children coming out of these single parent homes exhibit higher delinquency and incarceration rates. Everything from graduation rates in high school to acceptance to higher education suffers too. They become sexually active at an earlier age.

All of the new social arrangements are on display in our schools among the staff and student body. Today, It’s not just a case of students coming from dysfunctional households that we have to contend with. The same issues are mirrored in the teaching demographic as well.

So there you have it. An education system that reflects the society it operates within is failing at its primary function with significant numbers of both teachers and students behaving outside of what we used to call societal norms.

Whether or not we reach a tipping point in what used to be known as civil society is the unanswered question.

I don’t believe that simply cutting through red tape in order to eliminate the interminable “due process,” exploited by deviant employees will bring an end to this kind of behavior as long as the culture remains toxic. 

Because no matter how fast you fire them, the hiring pond remains stocked with the sorts of people you just terminated

What we are witnessing is the rotten fruit that accompanies the breakdown of our meritocracy that used to set standards for hiring, evaluating performance, and defining civil society.

Perhaps, an as yet unseen Great Awakening can mend the torn social fabric, because government has proved incapable of setting the ship right.

Marc Epstein was a dean of students at Jamaica High Schools. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, New York Post, Education Next, New York Sun, and the Huffington Post.



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