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Child abuse charges raise questions of appropriate behavior, warning signs in schools

Published: Saturday, Dec. 8 2012 4:35 p.m. MST

Two recent arrests raise questions about where inappropriate behavior in the classroom begins and what parents can do to keep their children safe.

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SALT LAKE CITY — A former charter school principal was arrested and charged Monday after reportedly admitting to FBI investigators that he had sexually abused "several young boys over the past 35 years," according to a police affidavit filed in court.

That same day, Stephen Paul Niedzwiecki, a former Kaysville basketball coach and science teacher, was arrested and later charged after allegedly engaging in a sexually abusive relationship with a 14-year-old student.

If convicted, the men will have been found guilty of clearly defined criminal acts. But the cases raise questions about where inappropriate behavior in the classroom begins and what parents can do to keep their children safe.

The Utah Administrative Code contains ethical standards for educators. Acts of cruelty toward children, providing children with drugs and alcohol, and sexual and otherwise inappropriate relationships involving students are prohibited and illegal.

But those standards do not include specific instruction on scenarios a teacher may reasonably encounter. Should a male teacher be allowed to meet privately before or after class with a female student who is struggling with her assignments? Should an elementary teacher be allowed to receive a hug from her pupils?

In most cases, questions of professional conduct are dealt with at the district level before going before the state, if necessary. In that way, administrators attempt to draw a line between preventing harmful scenarios from developing and allowing teachers to have an active and personal role in a student's education.

But any policy inevitably leaves a gray area as educators strive to have a positive and engaged relationship with their students while simultaneously trying to avoid any semblance of impropriety.

"Our policy does not attempt to explicitly list instructions for every situation that may arise," said Jason Olsen, Salt Lake City School District spokesman. "We expect teachers to act as professionals when they interact with students and their families."

Recently, a Granite School District teacher was allowed to return to the classroom after allegations arose that he was receiving foot and back massages from students, as well as other complaints. 

District spokesman Ben Horsely said criminal and administrative investigations were launched but ultimately found that no crimes had been committed. After appropriate disciplinary action, termination of employment was not required, he said.

The teacher's case is an example of the slippery slope of physical contact between teacher and student, which, according to Heidi Alder, is best avoided altogether.

Alder, an education specialist with the Utah State Office of Education and an investigator and prosecutor for the Utah Proffessional Practice Advisory Commission, said most physical contact that occurs in a classroom is innocuous, but an adult can never be too careful.

"Whether it's forceful touch or affectionate touch, it's best to keep your hands to yourself," she said.

In her 10 years as an educator, Alder said she's seen a noticeable change in the way students view and interact with the adults in their lives. Teachers and administrators are addressed by their students by their first names; they're added as friends on social media websites; and they make themselves available day and night with a text message or email.

There's a difference between being friendly and being friends, Alder said, and teachers need to draw a hard line in the sand.

"We've never reviewed a case in our office that didn't begin with some electronic correspondence," she said. "For that reason, we discourage teachers from taking their relationships outside of the classroom and into the cyber world."

Teachers conferencing with students should do so with open doors, Alder said. If an email or text message has an academic purpose, it should be sent to a group of students, not to individuals, she said.

Most teachers realize their actions could be misread, Alder said, but some could afford to be even more cautious.

"The truth is, I don't know if it crosses teachers' minds enough," she said.

Trina Taylor, acting executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Utah, said it's important for parents to talk with their children early and often about what is and isn't appropriate. Children as young as 2 can begin to be taught about the private parts of their body and that they shouldn't be afraid to tell their parents if someone makes them uncomfortable, she said.

"We need to have that conversation on a regular basis," Taylor said. "We can't just have the talk once and call it good. Kids are threatened, they're shamed, and as parents if we start that conversation very, very young with children, we can be assured that they'll be more likely to talk to us."

She said parents should watch out for sudden behavior changes in their children, such as an abrupt drop in grades or school performance. Parents also should be suspicious of children receiving gifts, attention or help in excess of what is normal from an adult, Taylor said.

"Oftentimes, sex offenders are not necessarily the creepy guy next door," she said. "They can be very sociable. They have to gain the child's trust. They have to gain power over the child, and it can be done in many time frames. It can be done in a one-shot thing, but it also can be years of gaining their trust and manipulating them."

Because pedophiles require access to children to commit their crimes, any youth-serving organization is at risk, Taylor said. Her organization offers seminars to schools, religious groups and other organizations about warning signs to watch for and how to screen potential personnel. It's also important, she said, for all adults to realize the importance of watching out for — and reporting — suspicious behavior.

Utah has mandatory reporting laws, requiring any adult who suspects child abuse to inform the proper authorities, Taylor said. The state also offers protection if those suspicions turn out to be false.

"The biggest thing is to teach people that it's OK to report," she said. "The prevention of child abuse is an adult's responsibility, so as adults we have to have the courage to stand up for kids, be their voice and be willing to report when we have any suspicion."

Warning signs of abuse

Children who are victims of abuse often demonstrate sudden changes in behavior, according to Trina Taylor, acting executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Utah. Some warning signs parents can watch out for include:

• Sudden decline in grades and academic performance

• Loss of appetite or other changes in eating habits

• Emotional withdrawal

• New friends and social groups

• Altered dress or appearance

Source: Prevent Child Abuse Utah

E-mail: benwood@desnews.com

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