Instead of Avoiding Lawsuits, ESD Should Work On, You Know, Not Sleeping With Students

In the wake of a multimillion-dollar civil jury award to the family of a girl who testified she was seduced at age 16 by a 34-year-old male teacher, we learn that the Episcopal School of Dallas has already instituted a number of important reforms. According to a pay-walled piece in The Dallas Morning News today, the school has taken the following precautions:

1) Expanded email storage capacity for staff. 2) Eliminated cell phones for staff. 3) Installed GPS tracking on school-owned vehicles. 4) Put in place new rules for use of school credit cards.

All of these important measures could be summarized as falling under a heading, "In case we get sued again."

No one will be able to accuse the school of erasing important email evidence, which is a good thing. If a 34-year-old male teacher ever does seduce another 16-year-old girl, it won't involve use of a school-owned cell phone -- another exposure to liability. The school will tell everybody about the tracking devices, so presumably an errant faculty member who does want to seduce a 16-year-old in the future will use his or her own vehicle -- another door to the vault slammed. And that faculty member will not be able to make motel reservations with a school credit card, as happened in this case, according to testimony.

This is the story of the girl who got kicked out of ESD, supposedly for talking about the fact that her teacher had seduced her. According to testimony and evidence in the trial that just ended, the principal of ESD's high school said in an email prior to kicking her out that the school didn't want her "haunting the halls with her sad story."

In the trial, the school's lawyers pointed out to the jury that, even though the original sexual intercourse had taken place before the girl reached the legal age of consent, a lot of it happened later. They also showed that she texted and emailed her teacher as much or more than he texted and emailed her.

John Eagle, president of the board of ESD, has expressed the opinion that the recent trial was unfair. In particular he was disappointed the judge disallowed titillating testimony from a fellow student who would have told the jury that the girl asked her to look at the hand of the teacher's wife's to see if she was still wearing her wedding ring. The student has not been named in any news account so far. Her teacher, Nathan Campbell, still faces a criminal trial.

The school's defense was built on two arguments: 1) the girl talked about it too much and thereby threatened to disrupt the school, and 2) the girl was better off going away and forgetting about it.

There is an excellent story about the case in the current D by Claire St. Amant, putting the question of the girl's alleged bad behavior in a quite different light. The complaints about her deportment came mainly from faculty members, after a teacher had approached the girl and said, "Are you the reason Campbell had to leave ESD?"

Anyway, I think the lawsuit precautions that the school has taken are understandable and will serve the school well in the unfortunate event of another lawsuit. I guess I still worry a little, however, about the underlying culture.

Would it be a bad idea -- I am only asking here -- to add to these precautions some measures to make sure everybody on the faculty understands that it is always wrong to have sexual intercourse with the students? Especially in a place where people obviously have great difficulty talking about the obvious, it might be a good idea to make this as obvious as possible.

I was even thinking in terms of warning signs in the faculty lounge and bathrooms saying, "No Coitus with Students." Something along that line. "Sexual Intercourse with Students Strictly Forbidden. This Means You."

That's the part I worry about, especially when the chairman of the board is pissed off because he wasn't able to get that good Gossip Girl stuff onto the stand. Look, I see his point: He's defending the home team, which in his view is the faculty and the school treasury.

But what about the children? In the authoritarian environment of a secondary school, where teachers have both institutional and personal means of domination over children, it's very important for the teachers to know they cannot use their authority to get the children into the sack.

And maybe the members of the board of directors need some reminders, too. Perhaps Mr. Eagle could prepare a memo warning board members that when teachers do have sexual intercourse with the children and the families of those children sue, it's very difficult for the school to get a fair trial.

The school cannot count on families of seduced children to be reasonable. In this case they offered the family an apartment in another city and even a free car for the girl, but the family shot them down. And the fact is that parents do have a tendency to get very angry -- in a way they just don't ever seem to get over -- about adults who have intercourse with their children.

I go back to my point. In a world where people go crazy on you and you can't count on the courts to be fair, maybe the better part of valor is just not to have sexual intercourse with the kids in the first place.

The school needs wall signs. If words are too subjective, maybe a cartoon -- a naked student in bed with the sheets pulled up to her chin looking confused with a big red X over her.

I am actually trying to be helpful, because I think somebody really ... really ... really needs the help. Now.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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