Talking to children when trust is betrayed
For years Daniel K. Johnson was a respected and well-liked West Tisbury School teacher who held a position of trust among his students. That changed following his December 2008 arrest and conviction last week for providing alcohol to students.
Following a two-day trial in Edgartown District Court (See "Former teacher guilty - served kids booze, porn," MV Times, Dec. 10) Mr. Johnson was found guilty on 10 of 13 charges, including assault and battery, providing alcohol to minors, and providing obscene material to minors.
In the aftermath of the trial, this week school leaders spoke about the conversations parents and educators should have with children when an adult in a position of responsibility violates the trust of the community and the lessons that can be imparted.
"There are two things we would say to youngsters about the whole issue," Superintendent of Schools James Weiss said in a phone call Monday. "You need to be honest, and when things don't seem right to you, you need to talk to another adult, even if the situation you're talking about involved an adult."
No matter how difficult a situation, Mr. Weiss said children should understand that if they tell the truth, things always work out. The students involved in activities at Mr. Johnson's house that led to his arrest, for example, had to be honest and come forward about it, Mr. Weiss said.
While parents and educators typically tell students that they can trust and value their relationships with adults, Mr. Weiss said they also should be told to question when a situation doesn't seem quite right and talk to another adult about it. "Unfortunately, in our society these days, it doesn't matter if students are dealing with a police officer, a firefighter, a teacher, a minister or rabbi or religious person," he said.
West Tisbury School Principal Michael Halt and the school staff addressed those issues last December, after Mr. Johnson's arrest shocked the school community. The message then was to question uncomfortable situations and talk to adults.
Mr. Halt said at the time that he was not aware of any incidents involving the industrial arts teacher until after a police report was filed. No one - including students, parents, teachers and colleagues - had expressed any concerns to him about Mr. Johnson.
School administrators moved swiftly to inform parents and students, starting with a letter from Mr. Halt sent home to parents informing them about Mr. Johnson's arrest.
In an interview with The Times last December, Mr. Halt said in addition to notifying parents, he discussed Mr. Johnson's departure with grade 4 and 5 classes individually and with upper level students in grades 6-8 in a group setting.
Whether or not Mr. Johnson was guilty, Mr. Halt said at the time of his arrest, the allegations alone were enough to damage trust, and that the school needed to start rebuilding that trust and communication with students regardless.
As part of that process over the past year, Mr. Halt said this week, "We pride ourselves in trying to make sure that every child has somebody in the building that they can talk to, that there's a trusted adult here. It may be their classroom teacher, it may be a guidance counselor, it may be a school secretary, that there's somebody."
However, as important as those relationships are, Mr. Halt added, "We always emphasize the importance of the parental relationship, that kids need to be talking to their parents."
Since there is a natural tendency for middle-school aged students to talk less to their parents and to push back against parental authority, Mr. Halt said parents should be proactive in communicating with their children.
"Whether it's this incident or anything else, there are going to be a lot of different issues that pop up in a child's life, and parents need to feel comfortable about talking to kids about everything," Mr. Halt said. "If it's not possible to have the simple conversations, like who was at the party last night, then it's going to be impossible to have conversations about the important things, like what happened at the party last night."
In life skills classes taught by Judy Boykin-McCarthy, West Tisbury School's grade 6-8 guidance counselor, an essential part of the curriculum is making sure that students understand that the best experts in their lives are their parents, Mr. Halt said. "We tell them that their parents may be frustrated sometimes with them, but there are no other adults in the world that know them better, love them more, and want to make sure that they're safe," he added.
In addition to emphasizing parents' important role, Mr. Halt said the school works on building trust among the students and in the school community through social curriculum such as Responsive Classroom and Developmental Design as an ongoing process throughout the year.
"It's about how do we make good judgments about who we trust and how do we reestablish it, and communication is always the essential part of that," Mr. Halt said. "It's knowing who to talk to if something doesn't look right, if something doesn't feel right."
When it comes to adults in their lives, it is important for children to learn that trust is something that is earned, and not just simply given to somebody because of his or her title or position, Mr. Halt said.
Martha's Vineyard Community Services (MVCS) Connect to End Violence program director Carrie Giacomini-White also provided suggestions for parents.
While she currently works with victims of domestic and sexual violence, Ms. Giacomini-White formerly was an Oak Bluffs police officer. She was the department's school resource officer and talked with students and parents about issues ranging from bullying to Internet safety to protection from sex offenders.
"I would say to parents that they should reiterate to their children that if they end up in an uncomfortable situation or something happens involving an adult, it is the adult's responsibility and not their fault," Ms. Giacomini-White said.
"Usually when I do talks in schools, I tell kids to trust their instincts," she added. "If you get a funny feeling in your stomach, or if you have the thought that a situation is weird, it probably is."
Ms. White said that her program and MVCS provide services to help parents and their children, or other family members, talk about troubling experiences, and they can be reached at 508-693-7900.