Modesto teacher involved with student raises host of ethical questions

naustin@modbee.comFebruary 29, 2012 

A teacher's romantic relationship with a student, even one who is legally an adult, raises thorny issues of morality, accountability and ethics.

Duty vs. desire. Trust vs. freedom.

High schools everywhere grapple with issues of budding sexuality and a legal age that often arrives before adult reasoning kicks in.

Teachers know teen sophistication often goes no deeper than the sparkly nail polish, but in the daily hubbub lines can blur.

The relationship of former Enochs High business teacher James Hooker, 41, and Enochs student Jordan Powers, 18, broke trusts. It violated Modesto City Schools policies.

Did it break laws? Not on its face, police say.

Did it go against professional ethics? Unequivocally yes, trainers of teachers, counselors and therapists say.

Did it break with community values? Yes, say ModBee Facebook posts:

Erin Ray Mar posts: "If it were a year later, and he weren't in a position of authority, it wouldn't bother me. But violating a position of trust bothers me immensely, and my heart breaks for his wife and children."

Chris Harami writes: "Yes, she is 18, that hardly means she has any common sense yet."

Sheri Denney's take: "This is disgusting, but it could happen at any school. Like one of the earlier posts said, you can condemn the school or all the other teachers there. We need to be raising our children to know better. We need to be more involved in their lives, so maybe this kind of thing never happens."

Ceres Unified administrator Jay Simmonds said districts have procedures for ethical dilemmas, but many problems go unreported.

"If any concerns are brought to us we deal with it immediately — that's when we know about it. That is the crux of the deal," Simmonds said. The facts, he added, are not always easy to prove or even sort out.

Michael Uretsky, who coaches middle and high school student teachers, said professional guidelines are unambiguous — no personal phone numbers or e-mails, no texting or Facebook access.

"From our perspective, that boundary is a very clear and a very thick line," he said.

Uretsky teaches in the single-subject credential program at the California State University, Stanislaus, College of Education. He said ethics is a core tenet of the program and trainees work through a variety of ethical scenarios in class, like how to deal with cheating, not showing favoritism, how to handle a student crush.

"This is not an issue that we all of sudden decided to talk about. This is embedded in everything we do," Uretsky said of teacher ethics.

Not a sole occurrence

Despite all the training, the Hooker-Powers relationship is far from the only teacher-student affair to bloom covertly on a campus.

A 2006 report to the U.S. Department of Education said that roughly 4 percent of adults say they had a physical sexual experience with a teacher, and nearly 10 percent of students report they have experienced some kind of unwanted sexual attention from a teacher.

Both Uretsky and Modesto High School counselors stressed that not only do professional ethics prohibit having a sexual relationship with a student of any age, an educator who suspects such activity has a duty to report it.

"As a matter of course, we will report for the safety of the student regardless of age because we are responsible for their safety while they are under our supervision," the counselors said as a group by e-mail.

Modesto High counselor Amy Switzer said most of what she sees firsthand are kids facing other types of difficulties. "Relationship issues, depression, anxiety, to change a class, homelessness — all of these things we deal with on a daily basis," she said.

She said she helps students get ready for transitions to college, to work or even to a first apartment by giving them a dose of reality. She talks about budgeting and behaving like an adult.

"There's a lot of teen pregnancy. Kids are just growing up too fast," Switzer said. "We have a lot of kids who make adult choices, and they're not ready for the adult consequences."

Modesto family therapist Carol Neyfeldt Benak said parents need to help teens understand their sexuality, talking early and openly about changes they will experience.

Families without a father figure present face extra challenges, Benak said. "Sometimes those teens are more at risk, there's more a chance of infatuation," she said.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339.


TIPS FOR PARENTS

Experts say parents of teens should trust, but verify. Teenagers are not always aware of the risks they take.

PREPARE for the possibility that as adolescents, your kids might engage in some risk-taking behavior. All risks are greater for teens who abuse drugs or alcohol.

ENCOURAGE teens to trust their instincts and if a situation makes them uneasy, to get out of it. Pay attention if they tell you that they do not want to be with someone or go somewhere.

BE SENSITIVE to any changes in your children's behavior, attitude, grades, style of dress or the mood of their music.

LISTEN if your teen does confide problems to you, and strive to remain calm, noncritical and nonjudgmental. Note carefully conversations about "a friend."

KNOW their friends and be clear about the places they may visit and people they may drive with.

MAKE A RULE to check in with you when they arrive at or depart from their destination, and when plans change. Also let them know when you are running late or if your plans change to make it clear the rule is about safety.

NOTICE when someone shows your child a great deal of attention or begins giving them gifts. Talk to your teen about this person and check Facebook and phone records for other points of contact.

EDUCATE yourself on the technology they use. Be their "friend" on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, check their browser history, and take note of phone numbers they call or text in volume.

Source: California attorney general's office and Modesto High School counselors