Education Matters: Protecting children's and adults' innocence

Editor's Note: Numerous instances of plagiarism have been discovered in Dan Kimber’s “Education Matters” column, which ran in the News- Press from September 2003 to September 2011. In those columns where plagiarism has been found, a For the Record specifying the details will be appended to the piece.

There was an interesting article in The Times last week about a flaw in California's child-abuse reporting system. It seems that the wrongly accused remain listed as reported child abusers, and the state has established no appeals procedure. The original "abuse reports" are used for employment screening, and there is no way for the innocent party to contest the report.

Looking back over my years as a teacher, I think of the many warnings and precautions that we teachers were given to avoid situations that may invite charges of impropriety. I hear from my colleagues that that message has been once again passed along to teachers to avoid any situations (teacher's assistants assigned during a teacher's preparation period, one-on-one tutoring/counseling after school) that may create a "compromising situation."

I understand this completely. I raised two daughters, and I am fairly certain about what punishment I would have favored for anyone who violated their innocence. Life in prison seems about right, and in the case of an early release for a convicted molester, I would not be opposed to chemical castration. There is no crime, in my opinion, that is more despicable than child molestation.

That being said, let me try to address another issue that is an unfortunate consequence of the first, and one that teachers, male teachers especially, are well aware of. When an accusation is made, it is often followed by a presumption of guilt, and due process of law is sometimes compromised. Our instincts are naturally to protect and defend defenseless children. It is a measure of a civilized society.

But I sometimes wonder whether those instincts end up causing another kind of injury, letting our apprehensions turn to a general mistrust, or our worst fears lead to unwarranted accusations. Telling teachers to avoid situations where he/she might be alone with a student is, on the one hand, erring on the side of caution. On the other, however, it is an overreaction to the foul deeds of a relatively small number of people, and it ends up casting a broad blanket of suspicion onto all who come into contact with children.

Thanks to our media, or thanks to the public's appetite for such things — take your pick — our children are on alert, and we adults are on guard.

Back when I was in college, I had a summer job as a park director, and one of the activities was a sleepover at Verdugo Park where kids from all over the city would come with their sleeping bags and spend the night under the stars within the confines of the city. There was a bonfire and relay races and games for everyone, and toward the end of the evening, each director would take the kids he brought from his/her park to a designated area and lay out the sleeping bags.

I did this for three summers, and it was a great activity for the kids. The last of those summers, however, is permanently etched in my memory. The morning after the sleepover, we directors were awakened to the sight of police cars and detectives motioning for each of us to come to a central table. When we were gathered together, we were told that one of the campers, an 8-year old girl, had been molested by one of the directors. That's what she told her mother when she was picked up in the morning, and the mother promptly called the police.

We eyed one another, wondering which of us had done such a thing, and were held for hours as each of us underwent interrogation. Then there was talk of photographing and fingerprinting each of us, but before that was even considered, some detectives decided to question the little girl a little more closely. She was unable to identify her attacker because it was too dark, but she said it happened down by the little stream that runs through the park.

When asked how she freed herself, this was her answer: "A big fish swam by and saved me."

From there the detectives were able to get the girl to admit that she made up the story. We directors were released after a four-hour detention and very relieved to know that none of us was guilty of such a horrible thing.

Looking back, it seems to me that everything that was done was the right thing to do. But I wondered what would have happened if the truth hadn't come out and each of us park directors continued to be under suspicion.

Ultimately, it is up to the legal profession to protect the integrity of due process of law. People's reputations are at stake, and they deserve their constitutional guarantee of a fair trial in which the evidence presented for or against them is valid and given a weight commensurate with its true value and reliability.

The protection of our children is foremost, but in our nation of "innocent until proven guilty," so is the presumption of innocence.

DAN KIMBER taught in the Glendale Unified School District for more than 30 years. He may be reached at DKimb8@sbcglobal.net.

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