A Touchy Subject

at 12:35 AM

My daughter's elementary school had just let out for summer when I received an e-mail with disturbing news. An adored PE teacher -- young, single and charismatic -- had resigned after school administrators expressed concern over his affectionate ways with our kids.

One of the things I've always loved about our school is its warm, nurturing culture. Both students and their families appreciate and even expect hugs from teachers, most of whom are female. In my daughter's case, at least, I believe that the special bonds she's formed with her teachers have been as valuable as what she's learned in class.

It bothers me to know that the PE teacher's behavior wouldn't have been scrutinized so harshly -- or at all -- if he were a woman. Sadly, headlines about male authority figures, from priests to Boy Scout leaders, who molest children who trust them have become increasingly common. So this double standard isn't surprising.

But I can't help worrying about the message it sends. Are we teaching kids to always be suspicious of any adult male who shows he cares for them because of the despicable actions of a few?

Our PE teacher had never been accused of inappropriate conduct by a parent or student. He had, however, been advised at the beginning of the last school year to back off on the hugs for fear of how they might be perceived. Unfortunately, we parents didn't know this. So some of us unwittingly contributed to the problem by encouraging our kids to hug and receive hugs from the man many of them considered not just a teacher, but also a friend.

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A crowd of parents showed up at a recent school district meeting to support him. And we're optimistic he'll be back on campus doing what he loves next year. To avoid similar situations in the future, school leaders need to do a better job of defining and communicating what types of behavior cross the line when it comes to how all teachers -- regardless of their gender -- relate to students.

I just hope hugs aren't on the list. Our school wouldn't be the same without them.

With a Perspective, I'm Dorothy O'Donnell.

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