Teachers told how to avoid problems with their students

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

Pitfalls of social media, child pornography, too many new laws from the General Assembly and sexual harassment were a few of the topics briefly touched Monday by Marshall County schools' top attorney while telling teachers he feels incapable of teaching five-year-olds how to read.

Charles W. "Chuck" Cagle of Lewis, King, Krieg & Waldrop attorneys in Nashville got a round of applause from the teachers in a packed Lewisburg Middle School auditorium for complimenting kindergarten teachers and raised a few laughs when he got to the podium after his greeting from Schools Director Jackie Abernathy.

"That was a hug I gave Jackie," Cagle quipped. "Her sex harassment will come later."

Cagle has been described by Abernathy as "Mr. Education Law in Tennessee," and as such he started where they begin on Capitol Hill in Nashville.

"It's been everything but a quiet year in education law," Cagle said, noting new statutes on testing, teacher evaluation and topics that didn't pass muster to become laws. "They passed 60 last year."

He's advocating no new laws on education; "Let us catch up." Teachers should tell their state senators and representative to stop, he said.

One of the new laws changed the requirement that teachers tell their principal when they suspect child abuse. Now they must tell police, or prosecutors or the Department of Children's' Services. "Frivolous reporting is also a misdemeanor," he said.

Cagle emphasized educators' responsibilities to protect children, even to the point about being sensitive "where poverty has prevented a child from doing well in school." He also provided cautionary tales meant to protect careers and school systems.

"As long as we can get early warnings, we can get text messages from the phone company," he said, advising prompt responses from teachers and administrators when issues arise, regardless of whether it's because of a student, teacher or administrator.

Among his true cautionary tales from his education law practice are the following:

* A man's texts to coeds didn't amuse his wife. On her way out of town to get a divorce lawyer, she left his cell phone at school board headquarters.

* "Do you really have a good reason to give a student your cell phone number?" Cagle asked, introducing the true story of a 16-year-old girl who sent her boyfriend a photo of herself in a condition of what lawyers call "extended undress." She was "nekked," Cagle said. The teens' relationship went south. The boy sent her photo to everyone in his phone's directory including a teacher. Two days later it seemed everyone in town knew about the photo. When the teacher was at a tavern with friends, they asked if he'd seen it. He replied by showing it to them. That's child pornography. One of the men at the table is a good friend of the girl's father. The teacher's case ended with a plea bargain and he won't teach again.

Meanwhile, Cagle acknowledged the value of cell phones in schools since they can be used to tell parents children are safe if a tornado strikes the county.

If teachers need to communicate with students by text or e-mail, confine the exchange to lessons and schedules, and if something appears wrong, report it, he said.

As a former attendance supervisor, Marshall County's schools director "has an interest" in another legal situation that teachers face.

The difference between being tardy and truancy is blurred and state lawmakers couldn't see it clearly enough to enact a law dealing with students who skip class so often, they could be considered absent.

And now the state safety department can suspend the driver's permit of students age 15-17 when they're not making satisfactory progress toward a diploma, Cagle said.

Bullying "is so ill defined that everything is included" these days, he said. "Parents have learned that word." If a child isn't doing well in school, bullying has been given as the reason. It is a discipline problem, however, and school board should have a policy on it.

Legal standards regarding discipline and other behavior problems were discussed by Cagle. School employees "cannot display deliberate indifference," Cagle said. The conclusion that "boys will be boys" is unacceptable. Incidents must be documented. It's as serious as a boy's suicide in a nearby county.

Still, schools can't control everything and if a reasonable educator monitors students and one of them does something mischievous behind the teacher's back, then the teacher and school system have a viable defense in the event of personal injury complaints.

"The school system is responsible for only so much," Cagle said.

Marshall County Schools Deputy Director Beth Wright was impressed with Cagle's "attention to social networking" during his discussion.

It "seems to be such a relaxed way of communicating," Wright said. Teachers "may not think of doing that in their professional life since it could cost them their professional career." Nevertheless, she said, they must maintain "the mindset of their professional responsibility and that of the district at all times."

Cagle's advice "wasn't just to protect teachers, but also the innocence of the child," Wright said. "Often, they don't know what they're doing. They may not do it with malice, but in today's society, it could cost a teacher their professional license."

Monday morning's in-service training for county educators included:

* Lewisburg Mayor Barbara Woods, a retired teacher and principal, talking about teacher grants and the Marshall County Education Foundation;

* Mark Bilyeu, a safety-engineering consultant with the Tennessee Risk Management Trust, spoke about workers compensation, risk management, and property liability issues. He used humorous videos and pointed to a chair and said it's not a stepladder.

* Denise Werner, a spokeswoman for Marshall Medical Center, discussed wellness screening and a program to instill the awareness of good health and how to keep it.