Teacher-student contacts tightly regulated in sharp break from lax past
When former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert appears Tuesday in federal court in Chicago for his arraignment, the public hopes to hear more about the secret that allegedly caused the longtime political powerhouse to agree to pay $3.5 million in hush money to a longtime acquaintance.
But if Hastert sexually abused one or more students — as has been alleged by law enforcement sources and the sister of a former student — it’s clear that the onetime coach and teacher did so in an era when adults were allowed far more access to children, with far less oversight.
A flurry of child protection policies have been drafted and implemented to prevent child sexual abuse during the past three decades. From the locker room to the classroom, Scout troops to sports teams, the boundaries between adults in supervisory positions and children are clearer than ever.
It’s a far cry from 50 years ago when nude swimming in high school was customary for boys, and coaches would routinely check to make sure that everyone had showered. Teachers could meet privately with students after-hours, and camp counselors could slather suntan lotion over their young charges without thinking twice.
But that was before sexual misconduct scandals — and subsequent lawsuits — rocked the Roman Catholic Church, Penn State, the Boy Scouts and school districts and youth organizations nationwide. That was before parents realized that an abuser was less likely to be a stranger in a trenchcoat hanging out at the playground than a trusted person known to both victim and family.
It’s not that the world suddenly turned into a more sinister place, experts say, but that society has became more aware and vigilant about what constitutes an inappropriate relationship.
“People are more comfortable talking about it,” said Mary Tavegia, a former principal at Cossitt Avenue School in La Grange. “In the old days, we’d say, ‘Oh, man ... let’s sweep that under the rug.’”
And as recently as 1995, when Winnetka school officials were examining sexual abuse allegations against retired educator Bill Bricker, a handwritten note in his file read: “Letting sleeping dogs lie may be more helpful.”
Steve Wilson, director of Wilmette Park District, said we are living in a new era of transparency.
“Today, we even have training on the proper hand placement for spotting a child in gymnastics,” Wilson said. “And if the staff doesn’t follow these guidelines, the staff doesn’t work for us.”
That is a common refrain from most institutions responsible for the well-being of youngsters. More intensive preventive efforts include mandatory criminal background checks for staff and volunteers, cross-checking the state’s sex offender registry, more training for teachers, students and parents, and more precise language about adult-youth contact in school policies and procedures.
In Illinois, most public schools look to a sample ethics and conduct policy drafted by the Illinois Association of School Boards for guidance, which calls for employees to “maintain professional and appropriate relationships with students ... and others,” according to Kimberly Small, assistant general counsel with the association.
In addition, the Code of Ethics for Illinois Educators, adopted by the Illinois State Board of Education in 2010, states that “any employee who sexually harasses a student or otherwise violates an employee conduct standard will be subject to discipline up to and including dismissal.”
The sample school boards policy — which individual districts can tailor to their needs — has been in place for at least a decade, while the ISBE code was added in 2010. It was followed in 2013 by Erin’s Law, which mandated that age-appropriate abuse-prevention education be taught in all grades, starting in prekindergarten.
It’s all designed “to ignite the conversation and get boards and administrators talking about ... relationship expectations,” Small explained.
Tavegia, who retired from La Grange School District 102 in 2012, said that hugs used to be part of the nurturing environment of elementary school. But around 2000, she started addressing the topic with her staff, especially male teachers.
“Not because of any impropriety, but because they were the ones I worried about,” Tavegia said. “Even with the best of intentions, people can misinterpret.”
Probably the biggest change Tavegia recalled at Cossitt: Teachers could no longer touch students to redirect them. “If (students) walk away while you are talking to them, you can’t even put a hand on their shoulder ... you just have to let them walk.”
The same fundamental shift has occurred in sports. At the high school level, it used to be common for coaches to grab a player’s shirt, face mask — or worse — to make sure they had a student’s full attention or as a way to toughen up and motivate, veteran coaches said.
“You just cannot do that stuff today,” said Rich Piatchek, a longtime coach and athletic director, who retired last year from Andrew High School in Tinley Park.
Barbecues at a coach’s home, overnight trips and other bonding activities also were interwoven into the culture. But now, even if school policy does not explicitly forbid it, “every coach says the same thing: It’s just not worth the risk,” Piatchek said.
Outings still occur, but with more scrutiny. For example, the Boy Scouts now have a “two-deep” rule that requires at least two adults be present at all activities — even a small troop on a one-hour afternoon hike. The organization also requires youth-protection training for all volunteers.
Other practices sound so lewd by today’s standards that younger generations might have a difficult time believing they’re true.
For example, naked swimming was customary at many swimming pools, from Chicago Public Schools to the YMCA. Communal showering — including coaches that would demonstrate the finer points of hygiene — was also seen as a legitimate part of the curriculum. The practice ended in the mid-1970s for a variety of reasons, including the advent of the Title IX law that ushered in equality in athletics and co-ed physical education classes.
“Can you even imagine anyone doing that today?” asked Mickey Hoffman, a coach at Glenbrook North High School during the 1960s and ‘70s. “It’s unthinkable.”
Equally improbable decades ago would be some of the rules included in the 21st century handbooks of most youth-serving organizations, such as camps accredited by the American Camping Association.
Take sunscreen and insect repellent, for example, which can no longer be applied to children by counselors at camps.
Contrary to what people think, “we’re just safer today,” said Michelle Tuft, superintendent of recreation at the Skokie Park District, adding that policies also exist to protect kids from food allergies and to require anyone other than a parent to show identification when picking up a child. “Part of being safer is training our staff so they know how to navigate situations that come up. The most important thing we can say is, ‘If you don’t know what to do, call someone.’”
The federal indictment against Hastert makes no reference to child sexual abuse. Instead it notes Hastert’s time as a teacher and coach at Yorkville High School and says he agreed to pay $3.5 million “to compensate for and conceal his prior misconduct against Individual A,” an unidentified person who has known Hastert most of his life. Unnamed law enforcement sources have said the misconduct involved sexual abuse of a male student while Hastert was an educator in Yorkville. One of the sources also said federal agents have interviewed a second person who raised similar allegations of sexual abuse against Hastert.
On Friday, ABC News broadcast an interview with a Montana woman who said the FBI had talked to her about her allegations that her brother, Stephen Reinboldt, was sexually abused by Hastert while in high school. Reinboldt died in 1995.
Reinboldt’s sister Jolene Burdge told ABC that when her brother came out to her as gay, years after his graduation, he told her that he had an ongoing sexual relationship with Hastert during high school. She said that in addition to being the equipment manager for the wrestling team, Reinboldt was part of a Boy Scout Explorers group that went on a trip to the Bahamas led by Hastert. Images used in the television piece included photographs of the group visiting a warship and lounging while playing cards.
Today’s regulations are designed to prevent gray areas, said Dr. Margaret Moon, a pediatrician and faculty member at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics.
“Black and white is not necessarily a bad thing because we’ve made some really bad mistakes in the past and, as a society, we are reeling in those failures,” she said. “But the rules can never encompass all the details of every situation. They are just a blunt instrument to do the best we can.”
As a society, she said, “we thought we knew who to trust, but we don’t anymore. So we respond with more rules, because we’re frightened.”
Still, despite policies and precautions, when faced with a hurting child — whether in body or spirit — compassion kicks in, said Joyce Kenner, principal of Whitney Young Magnet High School.
“If I see a child who is crying, nine out of 10 times, I’m going to give them a hug,” Kenner said. “Maybe that hug will have prevented a suicide. I’m willing to take that chance.”
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