New ethics guide proposed for teachers
A new ethics protocol proposed for the Martha's Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS) staff offers guidelines for setting boundaries in student/teacher relationships, in and out of the classroom.
The two-page document includes advice ranging from a caution to teachers to avoid being alone with students, to advice that teachers exercise caution when using Internet communication, such as emails, blogs, and social networking sites.
MVPS superintendent James Weiss has proposed adding the ethics protocol to a revised staff conduct policy he presented at the All-Island School Committee (AISC) meeting on February 18.
Revisions in the staff conduct policy, adopted in 2007, include only two changes, the addition of a reference to the ethics protocol, and a new sentence which reads, "They [teachers and others in the school community] are expected to maintain a culture of professionalism and respect, providing a healthy atmosphere for student growth and learning, while remaining within proper boundaries."
Mr. Weiss told the AISC that the new ethics protocol is based on a guideline for teachers used in Natick. "And the idea is to help staff understand what the boundaries are in their working with students and other staff members and the community at large," he said. "I've worked over the last number of months with the [teachers'] association to come up with some understandings that would be helpful to new teachers and old teachers alike, that would lay out some of the boundaries that need to be in place."
The revised staff conduct policy and new ethics protocol evolved against the backdrop of three incidents over the last eight months involving alleged misconduct by teachers.
On December 9, 2008, Daniel K. Johnson, a West Tisbury School industrial arts teacher, was arrested and faces criminal charges on multiple counts of furnishing alcohol to a minor and disseminating obscene material to a minor.
Mr. Johnson's arrest followed the sudden departure in November 2008 of a coach and driver's education instructor at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS). Although school officials said he left due to personnel issues, sources said his departure was due to inappropriate text messages he sent to students.
Last June, Martha's Vineyard Regional High School music teacher Daniel Murphy abruptly left his position following a criminal investigation by the Edgartown Police Department into charges of sexual misconduct with a student.
Mr. Weiss said in a phone call last week, however, that those incidents were not the determining factor in what went into the MVPS ethics protocol.
"School systems are not immune to interpersonal problems - we've had a few here, as have many others in the Commonwealth," Mr. Weiss said in a phone call last week. "The ethics protocol we're considering is broader, in the sense that we are not responding to any particular incident."
Advice in general
The protocol's introduction states that, "It is intended to be advisory in nature and is not merely a list of do's and don't's." As Mr. Weiss explained to the school committee last week, "If you were to say something like never touch a child, well, you know what, if you're a kindergarten teacher and little Johnny fell down, you're going to touch little Johnny - so it's how you go about it."
To that end, on the subject of physical contact with students, the ethics protocol recommends, "Consider when and how it might be appropriate to touch a student. Maintain a professional demeanor to avoid misinterpretation."
"It's a matter of making decisions in a meaningful, professional way," Mr. Weiss said. "But these are some boundaries, some guidelines, some assistance, especially for a new teacher starting out."