Reputation at Risk
Every school person who read with a shudder the story in Sunday’s Washington Post about teacher Sean Lanigan probably thought, there but by the grace of God ….
For those of you unfamiliar with the story, Lanigan, a Fairfax County physical education teacher, was accused of molesting a 12-year-old student. The incident occurred, the student said, during free time in gym. Lanigan, a respected coach and married father of three, was found innocent in a jury trial, but the damage to his reputation and his career is lasting. In addition, he incurred legal fees of $125,000 that the school district has refused to cover.
At his trial Lanigan described his physical contact with the girl: “I scooped [her} up by her knees, put my hand on her back, just spun her around, ‘whooo,’ and put her down.”
According to the Post, after his acquittal, the district presented him with “guidelines and expectations” regarding physical proximity to students. “Do not touch … students as a means of greeting, playing with, showing approval of, or otherwise interacting with them,” the guidelines state. “Do not be alone in your office with them ….”
Ahhh, helllloooo? It took something like this for the district to come up with guidelines for its teachers and, one assumes, administrators? Nobody thought of this before?
We don’t touch the kids, especially older kids. You should not be alone with kids, any kids, in a closed space with no windows. Coaching situations (as well as any other after-school activities) need to be carefully monitored. One of the first things I do in every new position is to make sure all administrators have large windows in their offices. I remind teachers every year to use good judgment in their interactions with kids. No after-school work behind closed doors. No dropping kids off in your personal car after school. I once sent a student teacher back to his college because he was buying candy bars for a tenth grade girl and giving them to her after school.
So maybe a teacher is just an enthusiastic, compassionate person who just wants to physically show his or her affection for kids. Use words. Use appropriate words. In my years as a school administrator I’ve known a few people who like to hug kids or pat them on the back. Some of that behavior is innocent, some of it is not and frankly some of it is ambiguous.
Sean Lanigan was found innocent, but his reputation is ruined. His district is not so innocent in ignoring situations that allow a teacher to be vulnerable.