Lawmakers look at “epidemic” of inappropriate teacher-student relationships

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OKLAHOMA - Responding to what some experts call an "epidemic," lawmakers are looking into ways to prevent inappropriate relationships between teachers and students.

An interim study titled 'Sexual Predators in our Classrooms' looked at why teachers and students get involved and how the problem can be solved.

"I believe that it's access. It's an authority figure," said Stacy McNeiland, CEO of the CARE Center, which helps victims of child abuse. "We're not taking it seriously enough. The predators are people that you know and you love and are close to your family unit."

Ten percent of abuse cases involve teachers, McNeiland said, noting one-in-three girls and one-in-four boys will be abused in Oklahoma County before age 18.

Inappropriate relationships between teachers and students have grabbed headlines lately.

Two weeks ago, the state suspended the certifications for five teachers accused of illicit activity.

"Technology is one of our biggest problems at the CARE Center, and it's something that we see a lot in our cases, especially with teachers," she said. "Typically, it starts with normal conversation, and then it just progresses, progresses, progresses. If we put limits on how our teachers can communicate with our kids, I think it can not only help the child but help the teacher, help protect the teacher."

McNeiland was one of the people testifying before a Senate committee, exploring solutions that included restricting social media communication and tougher penalties for the teachers that commit illegal acts.

"if it was your neighbor abusing your kid, you'd want that sucker put to jail," said Sen. Kyle Loveless (R-54). "Same thing happens in the classroom. I don't care if it's a teacher or what. They need to go to jail, and they need to go for a long time."

Loveless is already the author of a law that increases communication between districts, to ensure teachers accused of inappropriate relationships with students don't simply resign, find new jobs in Oklahoma and reoffend.

The State Department of Education has praised Loveless's law for making a difference.

But, he's discouraged by the news of a teacher who left a school in Yale amid accusations of misconduct, only to find a job in Texas.

"These predators are looking for weaknesses in the system," he said. "They're looking for ways to go around the system, above, however they can get through it."

But, other lawmakers wonder if the teachers found guilty of misconduct are more the exception than the rule.

"In my 32 years of teaching school, there are no sexual predators in the classroom," he said. "There are a few obviously in the State of Oklahoma that are taking advantage of children."

Rather than the few teachers Sharp calls "mentally ill," he said the real issue is the repeat offenders, which he said Loveless's bill has already taken care of.

"I don't want the public out there thinking there are all kinds of sexual predators in the classroom," he said. "There's so few of them out there. I think that technically it is overblown."

Sen. J.J. Dossett, a teacher and football coach, agrees.

Further, he wonders about the effects of limiting text message communications, especially in athletics, when teams may travel out of state.

"I think, as long as you're communicating with students or players in a strictly business manner, [it's okay]," he said. "Nothing casual."

And, while the CARE Center and other lawmakers are pushing for required classroom training, Dossett doesn't feel the state needs to step in.

"Teachers right now more than anything need to have less burdens, more ability to interact with kids in the classroom," he said. "We have many problems in education, and I don't think we have an abundance of sexual predators in the classroom."

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