Jefferson Not Alone in Dealing with Improper Teacher-Student Relationships

Jimplecute News Editor

In Season 8 of the long-running CBS series NCIS, Tony DiNozzo (Michael Weatherly) admits having sex with his high school music teacher.

Eight years later, the scene no longer seems funny.

The Texas Education Agency reports an increase in the number of cases of inappropriate teacher-student relationships.In Fiscal Year 16-17, 302 cases were reported to TEA.

In Fiscal Year 17-18, there were 429.

In Jefferson, two teachers were charged with inappropriate relationships in as many school years. In January of 2017, Wesley Dawn Lawless, 27, was charged. This year Shannon Lynn Griffin, 47, was arraigned on the same charge.

Jefferson ISD Superintendent Rob Barnwell does not see the arrests as an indictment of the local schools.

“Anytime an entity, especially a school, has an employee who attempts to have, or chooses to have, a sexual relationship with a student, then the answer is ‘yes’ there is definitely something wrong with that person,” Barnwell said.

“However, if you are asking whether or not something is wrong with our particular school or community, then, I would have to say no,” Barnwell continued.

Barnwell argued that the opposite is true. “We have a strong school system with wonderful administrators and staff who are doing a magnificent job for our kiddos, every day,” Barnwell said. “I believe we have done an exceptional job at investigating issues such as these when they’ve been brought to our attention. Things are not pushed aside.” Barnwell said his team strove to get to the bottom of each allegation.

Senate Bill 7

A new law imposes severe penalties on administrators who fail to fully prosecute teachers found to be in inappropriate relationships with a students. Barnwell said that has no impact on JISD.

SB 7, now part of the Texas Penal Code, revised the law to trigger required notification if the educator was terminated or resigned and “there is” evidence that the educator committed certain acts of misconduct, such as an unlawful act with a minor or a criminal offense on school property. Reporting by administrators is required if misconduct occurred; it doesn’t need to be the stated reason for the educator’s termination or resignation.

“I think we’re just getting a lot more of these reports that maybe would not have been reported in the past,” Doug Phillips, director of educator investigations at TEA, told a Senate Education Committee meeting in November.

Lawmakers also credited the increase to the #MeToo movement and “what’s going on in America today.”

“I actually consider this to be a positive development,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who authored Senate Bill 7, told the Dallas Morning News. “What gets measured gets fixed. And we’re now finding the extent of the problem.”

While the new law may have stimulated more reports state-wide, Barnwell contends that is not the case in Jefferson.

“(SB7) hasn’t had any impact on me personally,” Barnwell said. “I believe that more stringent requirements within the law have helped ‘root out’ some of these educators who have a tendency to prey on young folks.”

Barnwell said he was not blind to abuses that may have occurred in other places.

“I believe there were administrators in the past who may have just pushed things “under the rug,” which may have allowed a sexual predator to remain employed or to find employment in another district,” Barnwell said. “To me, that is not ethical.”

Information provided by TEA showed that although a student may be over the age of 17 and no longer considered a minor, the teacher-student relationship still prohibits inappropriate relationships.

A certified teacher for more than 18 years, Griffin of Hughes Springs was the high school cheerleader sponsor and an English teacher. Griffin was accused of an improper relationship with a 17-year-old male student. She taught at JHS for four years.

According to JISD Superintendent Rob Barnwell, Griffin has submitted a statement to law enforcement authorities and has resigned her position with the district.

Barnwell told the Jimplecute that an investigation by Jefferson High School Principal Michael Walker originally focused on student misconduct during a recent UIL cheer competition trip following a telephoned complaint. When allegations involving Griffin surfaced in Walker’s interviews, the principal turned matters over to Jefferson ISD Police Chief Shawn Cox.

Barnwell noted the investigation is continuing and the possibility of additional charges exists. In addition to sexual intercourse or contact, misconduct can also include text messages or email of a sexually suggestive nature as well as a message to arrange a liaison. Parents of students on the trip say a male chaperone also accompanied the group.

Cox refuses to divulge the name of the male chaperone or give details of what may have happened on the trip or what prompted the charges against Griffin, saying that it was still part of an ongoing investigation. In the 2017 case of Wesley Dawn Lawless, the former teacher plead guilty to having a sexual affair with a student in her Vocational Agriculture class.

Morals and Ethics

Barnwell thinks negative influences in society impact the academic world.

“I believe there was a time in this country when morals and ethics and the character of a person were valued at a higher level than it is now,” Barnwell said. “Nowadays, it’s common to see nudity, sexual situations, perversion, horrific violence, pitiful language, and just about anything else on television.”

In addition to TV, other technology (internet, social media, etc.) has created easy opportunities for people to see or read things that were considered taboo in the past. Another factor impacting society also concerns the superintendent.

“I also believe there are more and more kids growing up in dysfunctional homes. There are more and more kids who are abused, or neglected, or who are living with people doing drugs or perverted things,” Barnwell said. “I believe strong, functional, loving homes/families to be the backbone of our society. The fewer of those, the worse off our society becomes.”

Exits and Misfires

Some have questioned if adequate help is available for an educator about to make a life-changing mistake. Writing in “Psychology Today” Nick Luxmoore, lamented the lack of assistance available for a teacher drawn to an inappropriate relationship.

“As parent-figures, teachers often end up similarly confused, scared, and thinking, ‘I shouldn’t be having these feelings.’ ‘They’re wrong! I must be a bad person!’ Important relationships with students are sometimes curtailed because the teacher gets frightened and – crucially – is unable to ask for support from other professionals for fear of sounding perverse and unprofessional,” Luxmoore stated.

“The student is left in emotional limbo.” Another facet of sexual misconduct allegations is that not every one of them is true, but they can still ruin careers and lives. “Other than parents, no other group of people is accused of child abuse and molestation more often than school employees,” Dave Arnold, writing in NEA magazine, asserted. “And I do stress the word ‘accused.’ Fortunately for all involved, the majority of accusations are false. Derogatory appellations, whether justified or not, can linger.

“Still, once someone has pointed their finger at you as a molester, the label is hard to shake,” Arnold wrote “You have been branded, it seems, and no matter if proven innocent the public will remember the accusation. This is why school employees should take precautions against improper conduct with students, and defend themselves with no reserve against false charges.”

Barnwell said he, too, has heard stories of educators who are wrongfully accused and understands the difficulty they face. “I don’t have any personal knowledge of those instances,” Barnwell said, “but I have heard of some horror stories of false statements and allegations,” Barnwell said. “The sad thing is whether a statement or allegation is true or not, things must be investigated thoroughly. A person who is falsely accused must basically defend themselves to prove their innocence. It’s like they are guilty until proven otherwise.

“I know this has caused some serious repercussions for innocent folks,” Barnwell continued. “I believe if anyone is found to have brought forth any false allegations towards an innocent person, then they should face the most severe penalties allowed by law.”

Barnwell expects the struggle to continue. “We need to help victims. We need to prosecute wrong-doers,” Barnwell said.



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