Learning the limits

There’s still a month remaining in the semester, but Paulette Walker already knows what she’ll be talking about next fall when she addresses hundreds of students in the College of Education.

Walker, director of undergraduate programs and internship, leads a meeting at the beginning of each semester with students before they start their final internships. After the recent arrests of several Tampa Bay area teachers for alleged sexual relationships with students, Walker has plenty of examples of exactly what not to do while working in the education field.

“I’ll go to the newspaper and get headlines and I’ll read the headline and the students will (be) in shock, and I’ll say ‘Well, this happened,'” said Walker, who has held her position since 2000. “I give details of the incident, and then we talk about ‘How could this have been handled differently? How do you not put yourself into awkward situations?'”

The details of recent cases have been alarming, and the number of incidents in Hillsborough County has put the issue of ethics training on the agenda of the April 15 School Board meeting.

At least five Hillsborough County teachers have been arrested for sex-related charges since October, most recently former Martinez Middle School teacher Stephanie Ragusa, arrested March 13, and Freedom High School teacher Mary Jo Spack, arrested March 20.

According to media reports, Ragusa, 28, is accused of having sex several times with a 14-year-old and Spack, 45, is accused of having sex with a 17-year-old in the shower at a motel, where police say she took two students to drink alcohol.

Ragusa and Spack both graduated from USF, according to their files, obtained from the school district. Ragusa graduated in 2002 with a degree in political science, and Spack graduated in 2000 with a degree in secondary English education.

Debra LaFave, the former Greco Middle School teacher now known around the country for being convicted of having sex with a 14-year-old in 2004, graduated from USF in 2002 with a degree in English education.

Hillsborough school district spokesperson Linda Cobbe said the fact that several of the accused teachers graduated from USF is a coincidence because so many USF graduates teach in the district.

“We have a good relationship with (USF), and we work together on many things,” Cobbe said. “They’re our greatest source of employees.”

Getting the proper training

Most undergraduates in the College of Education spend their final semester interning five days a week in one of 12 area school districts.

After passing a background check, interns are assigned to work directly with a teacher and take part in all classroom and after-hours activities. The idea is to give the student the same responsibilities teachers have so they are prepared for the profession after graduating.

Before students start their final internship, they spend eight hours with Walker going over mechanics and expectations and discussing ethics and professionalism. Associate Dean Harold Keller stressed that ethics is tied into the curriculum throughout the College of Education and that Walker’s meeting with students is a small portion of what they’re taught.

Walker looks at it as an opportunity to keep students out of inappropriate situations as interns and as teachers.

“The purpose of the workshop as I do it is to prepare them for entering the field of education,” Walker said. “This step is as an intern, but you’re carrying this right over, so that, if anything you get better at it.”

Walker spends several hours talking to students about decision-making with topics ranging from staying away from happy hours and party atmospheres to how to properly hug a child.

As evident by recent news reports, Walker reminds students that once they become teachers their behavior outside of work is constantly in the eyes of the public.

“It’s not like other professions where people might look the other way,” Walker said. “They are not going to look the other way when it comes to us. And when you think about it, why should they?

“As parents … you want your child in a safe environment and not an environment where he or she may be compromised by an adult who is viewed as an authority figure.”

Don’t get too friendly

Sara Bauer, 21, is in her final internship as an elementary education major. Next fall she’ll likely be a first-year teacher faced with the challenge of being young, while managing a classroom and being an authority figure and not a friend.

She said it can be tough to not be too friendly in the classroom because teachers want their students to like them.

“As much as I want my kids to like me, I’d rather them not like me but get something out of my class,” Bauer said. “Being so young, I have to kind of think that way.”

It can be a fine line between being nice to a student and being too friendly. Walker said that while it’s OK to be nurturing to students, she tells future educators to be clear with students that they are not peers and that their role is to facilitate learning.

Technology has changed the way classrooms are run at all levels of education, but some innovations can be dangerous if shared between teachers and students. Walker strongly recommends all of her students delete their pages on social network Web sites Facebook and Myspace.

If a student has a Facebook or Myspace account, he or she can request to be anyone’s “friend” on the sites. “Friend requests” can easily be denied, but the fact that an online friendship is even possible is dangerous enough for some to condemn any participation on the sites.

“That’s an ethical decision that you are making, and you need to think about the potential consequences for you as an individual,” Keller said. “What about your students? What are they going to learn if they go on Facebook and they see ‘Here’s our teacher or our intern, and look at how he or she is behaving?'”

Cobbe said the Hillsborough County School District can’t prohibit teachers or interns from participating in online social networks, but teachers are warned that by putting themselves out there, they are creating the potential for allegations of inappropriate relationships.

“They shouldn’t be friends with students in any situation,” Cobbe said. “That’s what leads to this inappropriate conduct. Their role is to teach.”

Working toward prevention

With many of these alleged sex cases making headlines around the country, the goal for some is to look to the future and do what’s possible to prevent more incidents.

Keller said the College of Education has had students in the past who were asked to leave because it was evident they weren’t on the right path.

“It’s not only your grades that are going to impact whether or not you successfully complete this program,” Keller said. “It’s your actions. It’s your professional behavior.”

Keller said USF’s relationship with Hillsborough County is “excellent,” but in his and Walker’s opinions, one of the district’s policies contributes to the problem.

Walker said there’s always room for improvement, but like Keller, she believes the College of Education’s teaching of ethics and professionalism is sufficient. However, a degree in education isn’t required to teach in Hillsborough County.

According to Cobbe, college graduates without education degrees can obtain a three-year temporary teaching certificate. And if they get a non-education degree from USF like Ragusa did, Walker and Keller think they miss out on significant training.

“Would you go to a medical doctor who really wasn’t trained in the profession?” Walker asked. “Any time you skip some steps, you never know what’s going to happen, and I think we don’t do justice to the profession when we allow that to happen.”

According to Ragusa’s file, along with her recent charge, she withheld information about a DUI arrest and received a letter from the school board reprimanding her for having inappropriate conversations with students.

Professors can’t control what students do once they leave college, but if Hillsborough County hired only applicants with education degrees, Keller is confident all teachers coming out of USF would be well versed in ethics and professionalism.

“We have a nationally accredited and state-accredited program,” he said.

Bauer will hear from Walker one more time before receiving her degree in May, and while she believes the College of Education has done everything it can to prepare her to make the right decisions, avoiding sexual relationships with students is simply common sense.

“I really just think it’s silly and the people aren’t really fully thinking these things through,” Bauer said. “You should know better, and to do things like this is not acceptable. It never would cross my mind, never.”