Six months ago, a student came to Triton High School Principal Catherine DePaul with a disturbing story: She believed another student was involved in a sexual relationship with a teacher at the school, and she’d seen explicit text messages the two had exchanged.
At that moment, prosecutors say, a cover-up was put in motion that ultimately unraveled Thursday when DePaul, an assistant principal and three teachers were charged with offenses ranging from child endangerment to sexual assault and official misconduct.
Each of the five adults has been suspended from the school in the Philadelphia suburb of Runnemede, and each could face at least five years in prison if convicted.
The teachers — all men in their late 20s or early 30s — are accused of striking up relationships with female students during the 2011-2012 school year.
Of course, if only high school teachers could marry, well, we wouldn’t have these problems, would we? Snarkiness aside, this is of particular interest:
Sexual relationships between teachers and students are not unheard of. Camden County prosecutor Warren Faulk noted that the media seems particularly fixated on the female teacher-male student cases that are reported around the country each year. But what distinguished the allegations at Triton High was the inaction by administrators who ignored policies and safeguards that were in place and instead allowed a culture “where teachers thought they could get away with improper relationships with their students,” according to Faulk.
“These charges constitute individual personal, moral, legal and ethical failure,” Faulk said at a news conference Thursday.
The Catholic Church has often been accused, by a range of critics (including serious Catholics), of fostering a “culture” that leads to “inaction” by bishops and looks the other way when abuses are likely or actually taking place. There can be no doubt that certain bishops, priests, and others did indeed do just that, especially during the 1960s through the 1990s. But some critics have sought to pin the clergy abuse scandals on Church doctrine, practice, and structures, most notably the discipline of priestly celibacy for (Latin) Catholic priests. Are they willing to do the same when it comes to public schools? Are they, in other words, going to say, “The very nature, structure, and culture of public education leads to sexual abuse”? It’s very unlikely.
The grave moral failures, whether on the part of bishops and school administrators, priests and teaches, are exactly that: moral. The manipulation and abuse of authority is, ultimately, a serious moral failing. The Catholic Church, more than any other institution, has recognized this and taken steps to uphold and enforce the moral teachings that are not just part of her tradition and heritage, but are integral to an authentically human and just society. Unfortunately, I am convinced we are just beginning to see the tip of the iceburg with abuse cases in public schools. And, if so, one key question is simply this: do public school administrators and others, including parents, have the requisite moral conviction and fortitude to address the daunting challenge at hand?