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Is It Possible To Be Too Helpful?

Anita Miller is in her first year of teaching middle school students with learning disabilities. She makes a special effort to help Donald, one of her more needy and difficult students, by tutoring him after school, adapting his regular classroom assignments, and allowing his other teacher to send him to her classroom when his behavior gets out of control. When Anita drives a group of students home after a PeP Club meeting, Donald manages to be the last to be dropped off.  He deliberately gives her incorrect directions to his house, which prolongs the time they are alone together in the car.

 

In her first year of teaching, Anita Miller was hired to teach students with learning disabilities at Riley Middle School. Riley, located on the fringe of a large metropolitan city, served mostly children from low income families, many of whom were migrant and small-farm workers. A school of approximately 1,200 students with 70 to 75 faculty members, Riley had been built in the early 1970's, but by the time Anita joined the faculty, it had grown well beyond its capacity. Over 20 trailers filled some of the back sports fields, most classes were large, and all classrooms were in constant use.

Anita's teaching assignment reflected the school's overcrowded conditions. Being a beginning teacher, and the most junior teacher on the special education faculty, Anita "floated" all over the school, changing classrooms each class period. Because she had to transport her work materials with her, Anita often asked one of her students to take textbooks to the next classroom. As students helped, she had an opportunity to interact with them in an informal way, finding out about their interests and activities. Anita believed that showing an interest in her students was an important part of establishing a good relationship with them, and that a good relationship is the basis of successful teaching.

One of the students who frequently volunteered to help was Donald, a 14-year-old boy who had joined her classes in September. Donald was an awkward, skinny boy with a severe case of acne and a speech impediment. He slurred his words together, stuttered, and had considerable difficulty expressing himself, but once he started talking, it was often difficult to stop him. In Anita's opinion, Donald was a needy kid who was trying too hard to be liked. He constantly wanted special attention and got angry when he didn't get it. Anita often heard him complain, "That's not fair, man! That kid got..."  He thought other students frequently got privileges that he wanted and he felt as though he was not treated fairly.

Anita saw Donald's behavior as immature and somewhat annoying, but felt it was part of his difficulties  In order to help, Anita tried to counter the negativity he received in most of his other classes. With his peers, he tried to be the "coolest," but as far as Anita could tell, he had no friends and lived an isolated life. He often spoke without thinking, telling fantastic, exaggerated stories in an effort to get attention, but it seemed to backfire. His peers saw through his awkward efforts and continued to ignore him.

An eighth grader, Donald knew a few basic sight words, but he was essentially a nonreader. His educational history indicated that he had been enrolled in several different schools, had never done well, and was an unmotivated student. Anita was not certain when or where he had been identified as having a learning disability, but she did know that his previous teachers had found him to be an unappealing student. Donald frequently expressed his frustration through oppositional, defiant behaviors such as closing a book in a teacher's face and talking back.

Donald was placed in Anita's remedial reading and 8th-grade English classes, which meant she had him for two 60-minute periods each day. His attitude toward school and achievement was very negative, with one exception. In his history class, Donald was a well-behaved, reasonable student who worked hard to succeed. Conversations with his history teacher revealed that she modified lessons for Donald, whereas his other teachers made no accommodations. Because the history teacher lectured on most days, she gave Donald copies of her overheads. She also bracketed content in his readings to which he should pay particular attention, and she kept a daily journal about her lesson and Donald's responses for Anita so that she knew what was going on in the class. In contrast, his science teacher made no modifications. Furthermore, she voiced her frustration at having Donald in her class, "Why do I have to bother with this kid? It’s not my job to pamper kids like him. I have 35 students in this class."

Anita was dismayed by this attitude. She felt that some of Donald’s general education teachers expected more of him than many of their other students. Their unduly high, perhaps even unfair, expectations perpetuated his negative attitudes towards school. For example, Anita observed that his teachers expected Donald to understand a concept the first time it was introduced to the class. They also expected him to copy notes from the overhead, even though he was seated in the back of the room and had difficulty writing. They insisted that all of their students' written assignments be grammatically correct with appropriate sentence structure, and they made no special allowances for Donald's weaknesses in those areas. Being a new and untenured teacher in the school, Anita was reluctant to voice her concerns with other teachers for fear that she would offend someone. Furthermore, it seemed she was the only one who felt that way. Certainly the administration did nothing to address teachers’ negative attitudes towards students with special needs. When Donald behaved angrily and defiantly, his teachers often recommended that he be suspended and the principal complied.

By the middle of October, Donald had missed 20 days of school and was failing most subjects. Believing that his misbehavior was a function of his disability, Anita was critical of the suspensions.  She began negotiating with Donald's teachers to allow him to work with her on his assignments so he would be prepared for his classes. With Anita's help, Donald was more successful, but sometimes Anita felt his teachers were not happy with his improvement.  It was almost as if they wanted him to fail. Nevertheless, Anita continued to work with Donald and he continued to improve. In addition to her class time, she occasionally tutored Donald after school. Also, his other teachers often sent him to her room when the rest of their class was taking a test or when he became disruptive. In a short time, they were sending Donald to her almost every day and she was negotiating his behavioral referrals.

Because of his disruptive, angry behavior, one of his teachers recommended to members of the Child Study Team that Donald be considered for the behavior disorders class. The chair of the team requested information from Anita regarding his behavior in her classes and Donald's name was placed on the waiting list to be tested by the school psychologist. In the meantime, Anita did not want him to become so discouraged that he quit trying in school. She negotiated an arrangement with his teachers in which she prepared packets of modified assignments for Donald to work on during their classes. She also arranged for his teachers to give him partial credit for work that he did in her class.

As the year progressed, Anita gradually began advocating for her students more openly. Concerned about the ones who were not succeeding in their general education classes, she offered to administer tests or help make modifications for other students as well as Donald. Relieved to have the help, teachers increasingly sent their problem students to her. Donald, in particular, was so uncomfortable in his general education classes that he often asked his other teachers if he could go to Anita's classroom to take their tests there. He frequently wanted to read his journal out loud to Anita and whenever he received a referral to the office, he made a point of telling her. Although she found his constant need for attention tedious, she was gratified that he seemed to be making slow progress in both his academic work and in his behavior.

Neither Anita nor Donald's other teachers knew very much about his home life. Anita did know that he lived with his mother and step dad, and that his grandmother lived on the property. Donald's father lived in the same state, but he rarely saw Donald. Twice, Anita took him home after a work session, and she had seen his mother and grandmother when she dropped him off. Of course, she had obtained permission prior to driving him home. They waved and exchanged superficial pleasantries, but they never had a discussion of substance. Donald told Anita that his brother was in jail, but Anita did not know the crime.

Meanwhile, Anita, was assigned to be the advisor for the Pep Club. She encouraged her students with learning disabilities to participate as a strategy for helping them become involved and develop better peer relationships. Anita's students took responsibility for selling school T-shirts and tickets to school games. One of the assistant principals questioned the wisdom of giving her students such a responsibility, but Anita staunchly defended them. She monitored the receipt book and believed everything was in order. Anita wanted her students to feel responsible and respected. As a culminating activity, five students who had been actively involved in the Pep Club were invited to ride on a school float during a local festival. Anita took the students to the start of the parade, picked them up at the end, and drove them home afterwards. Donald sat in the front seat, gave directions, and managed to be the last student to be taken home. After the other students were dropped off, he gave her incorrect directions to his house that prolonged the trip. Finally, Anita realized that they were retracing their steps.

"Come on, Donald, we’re going in circles. Either direct me to your house or I’ll stop and call your Mom.  She'll tell me the way to your house." At that point, Donald gave Anita clear directions to his home and that was that.  At the time, Anita gave little thought to the incident. It was typical behavior for Donald, and she had many other things on her mind. Winter holidays were approaching and Anita was looking forward to a relaxing break. However, shortly after the festival parade, Donald asked her to take him to a basketball game. Something about his request made Anita uncomfortable. It seemed as if Donald was trying to be too familiar, so of course, she refused to give him a ride. Seeing his request as part of his awkward social behavior, she decided that after the holidays, she would think about what else she might do to help this student.

It may be useful to stop the case here and have a discussion about how to teach and plan for Donald. By first discussing how to deal with a student like Donald, students have the opportunity to test their own thinking. We suspect will anticipate the events that follow, which underscores the complexity of teaching. We suspect that teaching the entire case at one time may make it too easy to write the teacher off as having been careless or naive.

 

Epilogue

Anita returned from the winter holidays refreshed and ready to settle back into her teaching routines. In her opinion, her first year of teaching was going smoothly and her students were making reasonably good progress. Shortly after her return, however, Anita was called to the principal’s office. There she learned that Donald had told his grandmother that Anita had sex with him. The newspaper articles included in the next section detail the events that followed. The articles below is as it appeared in a newspaper; however, the names have been changed. The articles did not appear in the newspaper until after the case had been settled.

 

 

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Anita believes the newspaper articles were generally well done and accurate. In her opinion however, there were a few issues that were not adequately explained. In court, Anita was exonerated on several counts. First, she was not read her Miranda rights when the police initially questioned her. When she was called to the principal's office, they asked Anita many questions without explaining that she was being charged. More importantly, on one of the days Donald claimed they had had sex, Anita had been at the local university, which was documented by her professor. On the other day in question, Anita was on vacation and out-of-state, a fact that was easily documented by tickets and receipts. As the trial unfolded and the facts of the case were examined, it was disclosed that Donald’s mother, Ms. Showers, had been following a law-suit brought against a neighboring school system that had recently been featured in the local media. Apparently, his mother had discussed her interest in that case openly with neighbors and school personnel.  The case settlement resulted in a large cash payment for the family who filed the suit. Some of the people involved in Anita’s case speculated that Ms. Showers hoped this situation would yield similar results.

Not surprisingly, the experience was terribly stressful for Anita. Although her family was very supportive throughout the entire ordeal, Anita worried about how the charges would affect them. During the trial, her boyfriend had difficulty handling the negative publicity focused on her and their relationship ended. Some people who had been her supporters suddenly abandoned her. For example, her principal, who had supported her prior to the charges, changed his position stating that Anita was no longer an effective teacher. His opinion was both disappointing and confusing to Anita because she didn't return to school after the charges were filed and the case was kept out of the newspapers until it was settled. Mr. Carrington, the assistant principal with whom she had worked more closely, did support her and offered considerable information during the ordeal about Donald and his troubles. Other than family support, however, the most significant help came from Anita's fellow teachers. A number of them took a personal day to support her in court. Although a few were personal friends, most were colleagues who were convinced she was innocent. Once the trial was over, Anita's job was restored, but she decided to transfer to another school where she is currently teaching. She still works hard at developing caring relationships, but she is mindful not to be alone with her male students.

Now, several years later, that first year seems so long ago--almost like a reoccurring bad dream--impossible to forget, but now shoved into the background. Anita is a tenured and respected high school teacher who has finished her master's degree and recently married. Each time she reads the articles and thinks about the ordeal, Anita questions herself: Did she miss cues that she should have seen? Could she have anticipated events? Was she wrong in extending her interest and friendship to students outside the class?

 

Teacher vs. Student

It was a typical Wednesday for Miller, a young teacher at Riley Middle School. She gave her students midterm exams, the bell rang, and the kids went on their way.

Then the intercom buzzed.

"Miss Miller," the principal's secretary said, "Mr. Bentley wants to see you."

Miller, a teacher of learning disabled students, walked to the office. Waiting for her were two detectives from the Sheriff’s Office and an investigator from the school district.

They wanted to know about a certain student, a 14-year-old boy in her second- and sixth-period classes. They asked whether Miller had driven the boy home, where they went, and what they did.

"This boy is in so much trouble," she thought "What did he do?"

Then it became clear. It wasn’t the boy who was in trouble. The investigation was about her.

The student has made some allegations against you, they said. Sexual allegations.

Miller started to cry. They asked if she wanted a lawyer. She said no; she wanted to answer their questions. She thought that if she told her side, everything would be okay.

Within hours, the 22-year-old teacher was at the Sheriff’s Office, hooked up to a polygraph machine. The questions grew more pointed, more embarrassing. But Miller still expected to be back in her classroom the next day. She hasn't been back yet.

The events of that day were just the beginning of an ordeal that has lasted more than a year. There were criminal charges and a courtroom trial. There was graphic testimony. Finally, there was an acquittal. But there were repercussions, many of which still linger.

What happened to Miller is the stuff of teachers' nightmares. Like many educators she spent extra time with a student who needed special attention. Then she found herself accused of terrible things, sexual things, criminal things. It was her word against his, and the authorities believed him.

The mother of the 14-year-old experienced her own nightmare. Each day she sent her son off to school, she expected his teacher to guide him and care for him. When her son told her differently, she was left with anger, frustration, and a sense of betrayal where trust used to be.

Kim Delcarlo, the mother of another of Miller’s students, steadfastly believes in the teacher. The shame about allegations like these, she said, is that they can damage long-held beliefs for kids who have enough to deal with in the modern world.

"I was taught you trust your teacher," Mrs. Delcarlo said. "Your parents first, then your pastor, then your teacher. Now it seems to put a question mark there."

Now that the trial is over, it's clear that no one, not the student or his mother, the teacher, the lawyers, nor the school system--walked away satisfied with the outcome.

Here's what happened.

 

The investigation

Late in December, a 14-year-old boy and his grandmother had a conversation.

The boy, who sometimes had discipline problems at school, often went to her when he was in trouble. She would play peacemaker between him and his mother.

He wanted to tell her something. He said his teacher grabbed his rear end. Slowly, more of the story came out. He and the teacher were fooling around after school--touching, he said.

One day, the boy told his grandmother that his teacher said she was pregnant. "I hope it's not mine," the boy said.

The grandmother called the boy's mother, Alicia Showers. Showers had to drag it out of her, but finally the grandmother blurted out what the boy had told her.

Mrs. Showers slammed down the phone and got dressed to go to the school. Then she realized it was Sunday: School was closed.

Mrs. Showers tried to trick her son into telling her what was happening. She said a teacher telephoned and said that something was going on. She said if the boy didn't tell her, the teacher would on Monday.

The boy started talking. He said he and Miller had been having "you know. . .you know what I'm talking about."

He didn't want his mother to call the Sheriff’s Office, but she did. They argued until Deputy Leflore arrived.

The boy seemed embarrassed, but the deputy encouraged him to be specific. With his mother sitting there listening, he told his story.

On the day of the school's first basketball game, he said, Miller squeezed his butt. The next day she let him pinch hers, he said. Another day after school, they touched and kissed in the classroom. Other times, they drove around together and she let him touch her sexually and performed oral sex on him, he said.

The boy said he told her he didn't feel right about it and he was probably going to turn her in. He said he was upset because she seemed to be paying attention to another boy in class.

The deputy listened and recorded the boy’s statement in a l0-page report. Accusations became a full-blown criminal investigation.

Monday morning, as Riley Middle School students and staff headed back to school, sheriffs’ detectives and a school-district investigator went to work in the office.

Again, they talked to the 14-year-old boy who made the accusations. He offered more details, describing a flimsy pink bra and some flowered underwear he said Miller had.

The next day--Tuesday--they interviewed some of his classmates and some teachers.

A 15-year-old classmate said the boy "lies all the time and he tries to get people in trouble." Another said he "tells a lot of stories about sex with girls and lies a lot." Assistant Principal Eric Carrington said the boy once lied during a disciplinary matter.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Showers decided to do some investigating of her own before Miller learned of the allegations. On Wednesday, she sent her son to school with a miniature tape recorder hidden in his jacket. He was supposed to ask Miller to talk with him after school about what had been going on, and record their private conversation.

The plan didn't work. Later that day, Miller was called to the principal's office.

She was stunned by the detectives' questions. She thought this would all be cleared up once she told her side.

Yes, she said, she tutored the boy in the classroom after school. Yes, she drove him home. Yes, she once took him to Pizza Hut.

No, she said, she never had any kind of sexual contact with him.

The female sheriff's detective was being nice, Miller thought, while the male was more aggressive, more accusing. They asked her to take a lie detector test.

Within hours, she was hooked up to a polygraph machine at the Sheriff’s Office. Miller cried as she answered each graphic, specific question.

"Did you ever put your mouth on (the boy's) penis?"

"No."

"Did (he) ever put his finger in your vagina?"

"No."

Miller was so upset she began to hyperventilate, rendering the results "inconclusive." She agreed to come back the next day and take the test again.

By then, the reality of what was happening hit her. Again, she hyperventilated. The examiner stopped the test, afraid she might pass out and a nurse brought cold cloths.

The examiner later told detectives that "it was not advisable to attempt to conduct additional polygraphs" on Miller.

 

A loss of effectiveness

As detectives carried out their investigation in his office, Riley principal William Bentley felt like a spectator.

He believed in his new special education teacher. That's why he hired her. But for now, it was his job to help the detectives, stay out of the way and do whatever was needed.

Soon enough, Bentley would have to get involved. He had to decide what to do about the idealistic young teacher facing the ugly allegations.

Bentley and the school district had no obligation to keep her. She was a first-year teacher just starting in her three-year probationary period. The district could let her go (it's called non-renomination) without even giving a reason.

And he was going to be forced to have second thoughts about Miller.

She wasn't facing criminal charges--not yet. But the allegations were some of the worst a teacher could face.

There were other pressures. After students were interviewed, some parents learned about the investigation and called the school. A local television news reporter called, too.

At the end of the school year, Bentley recommended non-renomination for Miller.

"It wasn't the allegations," Bentley said. "It was the decisions she made that led to the allegations. She left herself in a position where her character and her professionalism could be questioned"

The official reason given for Miller's non-renomination was "a loss of effectiveness."

By tutoring the student alone and by driving him home after school, Miller violated an unwritten rule. These days teachers have to be competent and caring, while watching their backs to avoid accusations of sexual misconduct.

"There are no clear rules to follow, but teachers have to watch what they do," said Alice Ward of the Westbrook Classroom Teachers Association, who represented Miller at her non-renomination hearing. "You don't want teachers to be scared of children. It's hard to be nurturing when you're afraid."

"It's very hard to tell a kindergarten teacher that you don't hug a 5-year-old," Ward said. "It's sad." Teachers are given some guidance. The Code of Ethics includes some general rules, and a teacher orientation workshop offers some rules of thumb.

But for the most part, teachers have to find their own way at a time when accusations of sexual misconduct are becoming a very real job hazard.

"You hope it wouldn't come to that, where teachers don't do any of the extra things for their students," said Sandy Morton, a physical education teacher who started at Riley the same year Miller began teaching. "We wouldn't be teachers if we didn't care about kids. So it's not easy to turn that off. "When something like (the case against Miller) happens, it scares everybody."

 

The prosecutor

Sheriff’s detectives handed their criminal case over to the State Attorney's Office, Sex Offenders Division. The decision on whether Miller should be charged would hang on the student's word against hers.

That isn't unusual in the office where rapes, lewd and lascivious acts, and child abuse cases are prosecuted. These kinds of cases rarely come with witnesses or damning physical evidence.

The teenager arrived at the courthouse for an interview late one afternoon, on a day when prosecutor Anthony Sharpe happened to be the only man working in the division. The female prosecutor handling the case asked Sharpe to sit in, thinking the teenager might be more comfortable with a man there.

For about an hour, the boy told his story and answered questions. To Sharpe, he seemed shy, withdrawn, and "very embarrassed." Sharpe's gut reaction: The kid was telling the truth.

'I believed him," Sharpe said later. "But I also knew it was going to be a tough case to win."

When the female prosecutor later resigned from the office, the case fell to Sharpe. Interviews with witnesses didn't help bolster his confidence in taking the case to court. Fellow students said the teenager had a reputation as a liar, and teachers echoed them.

But Sharpe thought the teen's credibility problems probably made him an even better mark for a grownup. And the boy had passed a Sheriff's Office polygraph test, Sharpe noted.

"He just never struck me as cunning or crafty enough to come up with this whole thing," Sharpe said.

 

Miss Miller

Since she was 7 years old, the family story went, Miller had wanted to be a teacher.

The daughter of a lawyer and an accountant, she found her niche when she took an undergraduate course on Special Education at the University. After she received her degree in 1993, she was hired at Riley Middle School. First she taught emotionally handicapped students, and later, those with specific learning disabilities (SLD).

Miller was young and attractive, a slender woman with wide dark eyes, cascades of brown hair, and expressive hands. One of her students would later say that all the kids had crushes on Miller.

She was also a sunny optimist, and unapologetic about it. She wasn't the kind of teacher who yelled. She tried to create a classroom with an open atmosphere. She didn't mind giving a student a pat on the back for encouragement.

She remembered meeting the boy, a typical enough kid who tended to be loud and often did things to get attention. He was a student in Miller’s SLD class, which meant he had average abilities, but also some learning problems in specific areas.

She was assigned to be his case manager. That meant she monitored his progress and generally looked out for him at school. He had been in danger of failing the nine-week term, and she was tutoring him.

Now, her career, her reputation, and her life were all in limbo. But she would later say she wasn't angry with the boy.

"Somehow, this was a way for (him) to get the attention he wanted," she said. "He dug himself into a hole and couldn't get out."

At home, teachers and friends were calling with sympathy and support. Her father found her a lawyer.

Her family, always close, stood by her. Miller had to tell her boyfriend, a banker she had been dating only a few months, what happened. He asked her one question: Did you do it? No, she said. That was enough for him.

Her lawyer met with the state attorney. If the state decided to file charges, her lawyer wanted Miller to be allowed to turn herself in rather than be arrested. The state agreed.

"What do you mean?" Miller said when her lawyer explained the conversation. "Like (they would) come to my house and handcuff me?"

During the months that followed, she tried to stay positive, continuing her pursuit of her master's degree at the University. She was in class one night when her father called to tell her the bad news. The state was proceeding with the ease. Charges would be filed.

In July, six months after the boy first talked to detectives, Miller was charged with four counts of a lewd and lascivious act on a child. Bond was set at $60,000.

Miller’s lawyer, former sex crimes prosecutor Mike Hampton, immediately asked a judge to allow her to be released on her own recognizance after she was booked. He argued his case before Circuit Judge Henry Walls.

"So, basically, he's alleging he was the boyfriend of the teacher?" the judge asked, sounding skeptical. He wanted her released on her own recognizance and told her she could not teach unless approved by school authorities.

Because of the seriousness of the charges, Miller had to turn herself in to the County Jail for formal booking.

They made her take off her shoes, lift her blouse, and empty her pockets. She was fingerprinted, photographed, and made to wait in a large room with other arrestees for hours while they completed the paperwork.

People kept coming up to her, asking her what she was doing there. When a man asked for her lunch, she gave it to him.

She tried to think of it as a learning experience. Maybe not everyone in jail is a criminal, she thought.

At last, Miller was released. For her drive home, she put the top down on her convertible and breathed in her freedom. But she would later say she felt a twinge for some of the people she had met.

"They didn't get to leave," she said.

 

 

The lawyers

The more he learned about the case, the more Hampton was convinced he could persuade the prosecutor the allegations were false. He had Miller take a polygraph test with another examiner. She passed.

The boy's grandmother, his mother, and Detective Mary Nixion of the Sheriff’s Office all said they believed his story, but other witnesses and reports only added to Hampton’s determination.

There were discrepancies between what the boy told the first deputy, the detective, and what be said in his deposition. There were the reports from fellow students who said the boy was known to exaggerate and lie. There was the boy's discipline record, showing he acted sexually inappropriately with girls.

There were nagging details. Why would Miller, whose doctor had told her she probably was unable to bear children, say she thought she was pregnant? Why would the boy, who admitted he never had intercourse with her, say he hoped the baby wasn't his? Hampton became convinced that the boy had made up a huge lie, gotten in too deep, and couldn't turn back. More than a dozen times, he contacted the prosecutor to point out evidence he believed pointed to his client's innocence. All along, he thought he could convince them. But the state seemed determined.

Finally, the prosecutor made an offer. Miller could plead no contest to the charges in exchange for a sentence of probation. She would not be able to teach again, but she also wouldn't face 5 - 7 years in prison, a place Hampton doubted she could survive.

Hampton later called it one of the hardest thing he has had to do in his legal career. He recommended against taking the deal.

"Representing somebody who's guilty is easy," He said. It took Miller less than a minute to decide.

They would go to trial.

 

The trial

Prosecutor Sharpe did a lot of soul-searching.

The day of trial, he sat the teenager down in his office. For about 20 minutes, he put the kid on the hot sat, giving him one last chance to back out of his story. Sharpe reminded him that Miller could go to prison.

"It really happened," the boy said. "I'm not making this up."

The teenager got emotional. Sharpe thought the boy clearly had a crush on her.

The defense opted for a trial before a judge, without a jury. The judge was Alice Dodd, who had once been a sex-offenses prosecutor.

It lasted two days. Halfway through, the judge threw out the second charge because the boy forgot about an incident where he allegedly performed oral sex on his teacher.

When it was over, there was no need to wait for a jury's deliberations. As Miller clutched her lawyer's hand, Judge Dodd quickly announced the verdict: Not guilty, three times over.

Miller said two words: "Thank you."

Then she turned around, faced her family and her boyfriend, and fell apart.

The boy wasn't in the courtroom to witness the verdict. Sharpe walked his mother and grandmother to their car.

"If this ready happened to him, she should be punished for it," Mrs. Showers said "If he's lying about it, he should be punished."

 

The aftermath

The verdict ended the criminal case, but it didn’t provide the nice, neat finish people expect after having their day in court.

The school district still has not seen a formal request to reinstate Miller, but it's coming.

The state is reviewing Miller’s case. Even though the judge decided Miller committed no crime, the state could decide she showed poor judgment and suspend or revoke her teaching certificate. If the state leaves her free to teach, then the school district will have to decide whether to hire her back.

"As far as her potential as an educator, I believe that's intact," Said Bentley, the principal at Riley. "It's a difficult call. The district is very, very concerned about the welfare of kids, but you don't want to end a career like that, either."

Prosecutor Sharpe lost a case he expected to lose. But he sticks by his decision to take it to trial and his belief in the boy.

"Honestly, I think from (his) perspective, this really happened," Sharpe said. "Whether it happened in the real world or not, that (was) for the judge to decide." He said he would make the same decision again.

Though he won his case, defense attorney Hampton isn't celebrating. He still can't believe the case went to trial.

"I'm still despondent because the effect on Anita is going to be permanent,' he said. There is no guarantee she will be allowed to teach again, and no one can give her those months back.

"We're never going to be able to get all those pieces back together," he said.

The student who made the accusations is 15 now. He recently transferred out of Riley Middle School. He thought some teachers there were giving him "the cold shoulder." He's seeing a counselor now, and during regular sessions they talk about what's going on in his life, and about the accusations against his teacher. Sometimes. he sees her face in his mind.

"I'm not mad at her," the boy said. "I'm mad at myself. I let it go too far." The boy said he recently had a dream about Miller.

"In the dream, I couldn't move my body. She was above me and I could see her, I just couldn't move. It was, like, helpless."

Miller has never been angry at the boy. "I think he was just someone who wanted to be liked," she said. "He just didn't know how to make appropriate friendships."

She still believes she will get back to the classroom and continue her career with special education children. The question is whether the experience will have changed her as a teacher.

"That's something I've thought about a lot," she said. 'I can't go back in the classroom to be afraid."

 

(A few days later, the following editorial appeared in the paper. Apparently, the newspaper received a number of calls and letters in support of Anita.)

 

The kind of teacher we need

The civics lesson schoolchildren learn about American justice is simple: A person is innocent until proven guilty. The students at Riley Middle School, however, know real life isn't so neat and tidy.

Miller was an idealistic young teacher at Riley with a bright future ahead of her when one of her students claimed he'd had sex with her. Miller was charged, tried, and acquitted, yet she still hasn't gotten her job back. She was dismissed even before she was charged.

Miller may have been innocent in the eyes of the law, but she was guilty of violating an unwritten teacher code. "She left herself in a position where her character and her professionalism could be questioned," explained William Bentley, her principal.

Her horrible indiscretion: She tutored a student alone, took him for pizza, and drove him home. To the school system, it didn't matter that she was innocent of doing anything bad to the student. The mere fact that she allowed herself to be alone with a student was enough to end her teaching career.

Parents who wonder why their children don't get the special attention they deserve should consider Miller’s story and ask themselves if this is the kind of school system they want. It surely isn't the kind of atmosphere that nurtures enthusiasm among teachers.

Miller, 23, might still have a job today if she hadn't been a first-year teacher. Because she was so new, the school system doesn't legally need a reason to get rid of her. The only explanation it has offered is "loss of effectiveness."

This case is especially unsettling because Miller taught kids with learning disabilities. "That extra help is usually what they need," explains Betty Jane Lockard of the Classroom Teachers Association, which is fighting to return Miller to the classroom. "How can you tutor a student and not be alone with him!"

The union plans to formally ask the School Board to reinstate Miller. It wouldn't have to take that step if the board simply did what it should be morally bound to do. Unlike her principal, the school system should stand behind teachers who are wrongfully accused.

It usually takes years for the system to grind the idealism out of a young teacher. Few teachers are confronted with the kind of harsh lesson Miller received in her first year. "There is nothing that will make up for what this teacher has been through," Shelton said.

The School Board can try, though, by giving Miller a teaching job. That she is still interested in pursuing a teaching career after all this is a testimony to her boundless optimism and enduring idealism. Isn't that the kind of teacher every school needs?

 

Discussion/Study Questions

1. List what you learned about each of the characters in the case.

2. What do you think is motivating the thoughts/actions of each of the characters?

3. What are the issues/problems in the case?

 

Additional Questions

1. What do you think of when you hear the word professionalism?

2. Was Anita overstepping her boundaries?

3. What is appropriate professional distance between teacher and student?

4. Should caring be set aside for caution?

5. Were there any "red flags" in terms of Donald’s behavior that could have forewarned Anita of a potential problem?

6. What were Donald’s needs and how could they best be met?

7. How should Anita approach Donald’s other teachers?

8. Do you think Donald should be evaluated for eligibility in services for students with behavior disorders? Why or why not?

 

CEC Competencies/Knowledge Areas Addressed in the Case

 

Major areas:

Rights and responsibilities of parents, students, teachers, and schools as they relate to individuals with exceptional learning needs.

Applicable laws, rules, and regulations, and procedural safeguards regarding the planning and implementation of management of student behaviors.

Teacher attitudes and behaviors that positively or negatively influence student behavior.

 

Other areas:

Diversity and dynamics of families, schools, and communities as related to effective instruction for individuals with exceptional learning needs.

Importance and benefits of communication and collaboration which promotes interaction with students, parents, and school and community personnel.

Techniques for modifying instructional methods and materials.

 

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