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How I Handled...

A Complaint About a
Teacher's Use of
Sexual Innuendo

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I received a complaint about a teacher's use of sexual innuendo in the classroom. It crossed my mind that the complaint might be a way to "get back" at a very demanding teacher. Nonetheless, the complaint had to be investigated quickly and thoroughly.

The Problem:

One of our English teachers is very demanding of the students in his honors-level class. We get a lot of complaints about him from students and their parents. His tests are hard, he gives a lot of homework, and a lot of work is demanded for the course. Last month, I got a complaint that this teacher used sexual innuendo in class. While I must admit up-front that it crossed my mind that this complaint might be a way of "getting back" at the demanding teacher, our district has a no-tolerance policy for guns, drugs, alcohol, and harassment of any kind. Clearly, this was something that we needed to investigate quickly and thoroughly. Policy dictated we do that, and it was the right thing to do.

The Solution:

We invited the student and his parents to come into school. We had the student write exactly what he had heard. During the meeting, we assured the student and parents that we would investigate fully.

In our large school district, we are fortunate to have independent investigators who check into allegations such as the ones that were made. As soon as the parents left, I called our central office investigator and my area superintendent to let them know about the situation. We were asked to identify students from whom we might collect statements; we would enlist the cooperation of the students to keep our investigation as quiet as possible. (Parents of those students would be informed too.) At this point, we did not want to alert other students or the teacher to the investigation.

An investigator came to our school and collected statements from students. It was at that point that the teacher was called in. We asked him if he had said what the students said he said. He explained what happened. His explanation and the students' statements concurred.

Our investigation revealed that, yes, the teacher did say something inappropriate. The remark he made was not anything that most of us have not made outside the classroom. (Students hear much worse talk at lunch every day.) Immediately after he made the remark in class, he apologized to the students. To slip and make the comment was wrong, but it was concluded that the remark could not be classified as sexual harassment. In the end, I made it clear to the teacher that I considered the fact that he did not come forward and inform me of the incident before I heard it from the student and his parents at least as disturbing as what he had said.

The end result: The teacher is unhappy; he has gotten the teachers' union involved. The parents are upset because the teacher was not fired on the spot. The complaining student is still doing poorly in the English class. In spite of all that, I am happy with the way the incident was handled.

The Reflection:

Fortunately, this kind of incident does not happen often. Like any complaint of a serious nature, it was essential that it be investigated as impartially as possible and as quickly as possible. All parties had to be treated with utmost fairness. Though I do not hide my initial thoughts that the complaint might be tied to the difficult nature of the teacher and his course, it was essential that I put those thoughts out of my mind and handle this complaint in the same manner as I would handle any other. It is my responsibility to make sure that procedures are followed to completion, regardless of my initial reaction or the ultimate outcome. A principal is like an umpire. She is caught between many groups -- students, teachers, staff, parents, central office… But she has the obligation to act upon everything as prudently as possible and in the best interests of all stakeholders and the institution.

About the How I Handled... Team of Principal Problem Solvers
The How I Handled... series is intended to be practical resource for all principals and principals-to-be. Each week, members of Education World's How I Handled team share how they solved actual problems relating to school leadership, parent involvement, professional development, and a host of other "principal" responsibilities. Six principals comprise our How I Handled team; two of them are elementary school principals, two work at the middle level, and two are high school principals. Team members remain anonymous; in that way, they can share freely the range of issues/problems they are called on to solve each day.

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