by Ericka Mellon - Houston Chronicle

A veteran elementary school teacher, Louis Watson has mastered the “side hug” and the high five. The moves help him dodge the bear hugs his young students initiate.

“Being a male teacher, you never hug a kid from the front area,” said Watson, 63.

It’s a lesson Watson has learned over time as teachers face increasing scrutiny of their interactions with students. One embrace of a child can turn into an allegation of sexual harassment.

“There are people in the profession that have given teaching a bad name,” said Watson, who teaches fifth-graders at Sanchez Elementary in the Houston Independent School District.

Last week, an HISD high school principal learned he likely will be fired for not disclosing that he quit past jobs in the Klein and Clear Creek districts amid allegations of sexual misconduct.

Josiah Franklin, 46, has not been charged with a crime, but when he taught drama at Klein High School, he admitted taking a student shopping for Christmas gifts — which included silk boxer shorts and French cologne.

Franklin told Klein ISD police he had tried to “befriend” the teenage boy, whom he thought was troubled.

“I once felt that I could help make a difference in his life by being a good teacher — a teacher about acting and life itself,” he said in a handwritten statement to police.

Teachers wanting to make a difference in students’ lives — on the surface, it sounds laudable. But teachers today find themselves treading a fine line between trying to help students and avoiding even the appearance of inappropriate activity.

“It’s a tough world for teachers,” said Joy Baskin, director of legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards. “I suppose there have always been bad actors who would take advantage of children, but the higher the awareness of those risks, the higher the caution from parents, hopefully from children but also from educators.”
Gray areas

The tricky situations facing teachers are myriad: Should they comfort an upset child with a hug? Should they drive home a student whose parents left him at school? Is it OK to give out their cell phone numbers in case students need homework help?

School districts have policies to give teachers guidance, but there are still gray areas. Fort Bend ISD, for example, tells employees not to call students or send text messages but allows for exceptions if the information is “directly related to a school-sponsored activity that the employee sponsors/supervises.”

In Alief ISD, the employee handbook says staff members “are advised against transporting students.”

“Sometimes it’s well-intentioned, but you never know what the allegation’s going to be if you give a student a ride home,” said Rose Benitez, assistant superintendent for human resources.

Benitez said Alief gets no more than “a handful” of allegations a year that teachers have acted inappropriately with students.

“The vast majority of cases come down on the side that nothing really happened,” she said, adding that at times students are retaliating against teachers for, say, a bad grade. “Then you do have those rare occurrences where unfortunately the adult person has crossed the line.”

Annual training

Rennette Brown, an English teacher at Yates High School in HISD, said she tries to take precautions when interacting with students after hours. She said she keeps the classroom door open when she coaches the mostly male debate team, and she gets parents’ permission to take students to a museum, a play or to church with her.

“Before you go anywhere with me, I must speak to your parent,” Brown, 39, said she tells the students. “I must see your parent, and they must see me.”

Gayle Fallon, who represents about 6,500 employees as president of the Houston Federation of Teachers, said she does annual training to help her members avoid trouble. She estimates that eight to 10 HISD employees a year are accused of improper activity with students and said most claims are unfounded.

“The first group of people we tell to be careful is young single males,” she said. “Under no circumstances do you ever put a child in your car.”

Times have changed since Fallon was teaching in the ’70s. She said she used to let students into her home and would take some on vacation with her to babysit her son.

“It wasn’t an era where you ran around worried about whether someone was going to say you had an improper relationship with a child,” she said. “People would say, ‘Isn’t that nice? You’re spending time with a child.’ “