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When is reaching out to a student getting too close?

TAMPA — The male student checked out the long auburn hair and light eyes. Who are you?

"Ms. Buchanan," the 25-year-old Hillsborough teacher replied.

I just want to let you know that I'm 18.

"Well, I just want to let you know that you're still 10 years too young for me," said Ashley Buchanan, a first-year teacher.

For the Brandon High School teacher, the lines are clear: Sex with students — or any inappropriate relationship — is an obvious no-no.

But what about text-messaging? Hugs? Handing out a personal cell number?

Teachers can fall into gray areas trying to walk the line between saint and sinner. When is reaching out to a child getting too close? When is it making a difference?

As a young teacher, Buchanan says, she has to be especially careful. Students tell her all the time that she looks like one of them. They jokingly invite her on dates and to the movies.

"I say in the current climate, you can't say things like that. You think it's funny, but you're crossing the line," she said. "They don't understand the consequences of what they say."

The issues aren't always as black and white as the recent spate of teacher sex scandals placing Tampa Bay area schools in the national limelight. Electronic communication, for instance, can be a slippery slope.

Consider the former band director at South Tampa's Plant High School, John Sinibaldi, who was suspended last year after text-messaging a student more than 525 times. His termination hearing is next week.

"It's a pit that you can slide into if you're not diligent at the front end," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas teachers union, recalling cases of teachers sending e-mails at 2 a.m. "It's going to look bad, whether it's innocent or not."

At west Hillsborough's Leto High School, principal David Brown called a faculty meeting shortly after the wave of arrests. He cautioned teachers to be careful with seemingly innocent acts.

"Ninety-nine percent of the time they're doing that to be helpful," he said.

But times have changed, and perhaps not for the better. As a cheerleading coach at Plant High in the mid 1980s, Deborah Isaac never worried about going out to eat with her squad after Friday night games, or babysitting at their homes.

"Those days are done, and it's sad," said Isaac, 59, who now works at Alonso High in northwest Hillsborough. "School was the center of the community. It's not that way anymore.

"Society doesn't respect teachers anymore," she added.

Today, teachers can fret over their every move — even outside school. Some try to avoid student hangouts. Others worry about students seeing them with a glass of wine at a restaurant.

Carla White, a teacher at Tampa's Middleton High, is even careful about what she wears to mall. She has ruled out a sundress with an open back, because she might run into students or their families.

"There is no gray area," the 40-year-old teacher said.

Hillsborough teachers union president Jean Clements thinks female teachers have always been vulnerable to having their actions misunderstood. But rumors spread quickly in the electronic age.

"People have their reputations ruined more quickly than the employee can come back to work the next day and talk to their administrator and say something happened yesterday, and it was kind of weird," she said.

She fears the current atmosphere will make some teachers less willing to check up on a child going through hard times.

Rebecca Sadusky, for example, feels she has to be extra careful in her history classroom at Wesley Chapel High. At all times, she keeps her door open and the lights on. She tries to let another teacher know if a student is coming to her room after school.

"If you wanted to give a student a hug, that could be considered inappropriate," said Sadusky, 29, a married mother of two. "You can't even just be a shoulder to cry on. I really don't think that you can."

Don Hills sees the boundaries differently. The 48-year-old Jefferson High social studies teacher avoids compromising situations. He said students have never been to his house, or alone in his car.

But he can't stop those who see him as a teddy bear.

"I probably get 100 hugs a day, which is totally illegal," said Hills, who has worked out a way of pushing those who want to embrace him to the side for a half-hug. "I'm grandpa. They think of me as Mr. Buddha."

And he's trying to be the role model that they want him to be.

Times staff writer Jeffery S. Solochek contributed to this report. Letitia Stein can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Teachers
in the news
Jan. 31: Former Newsome High coach Ronald Lewis arrested on seven counts of unlawful sex with a minor girl student.
Feb. 9: Azalea Middle teacher Jason Williams recommended for unpaid suspension over inappropriate text messaging with a student.
March 10: Pasco Middle teacher Michael Aaron Black sentenced to 22 1/2 years for having sex with a
13-year-old student.
March 13: Former Davidsen Middle teacher Stephanie Ragusa arrested on charges of having sex with a male student.
March 14: Former Greco Middle teacher Debra Lafave requests an end to her house arrest stemming from her 2005 conviction for having sex with a student.
March 20: Freedom High teacher Mary Jo Spack arrested on charges of having sex with a male student.
March 23: Mitchell High substitute teacher Lisa Marinelli arrested on charges of having sex with a male student.
March 24: Seminole High teacher Thomas J. Anderson resigns amid accusations that he took home a female student and received a massage from her.

When is reaching out to a student getting too close? 03/28/08 [Last modified: Monday, March 31, 2008 2:42pm]
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