Teachers gone wild!

The media loves reporting on dangerous educators. But is abuse in the classroom really on the rise?

By Judy Berman

Published June 4, 2009 12:05PM (EDT)

"From Sex to Assault: What's Up With America's Teachers?" That's the headline attached to what may be this week's silliest faux trend piece. "Teachers this year have been accused of punching students and having sex with them, wrapping duct tape around their students and showing up drunk in the classroom," according to ABC News reporter Sarah Netter. And while she (perhaps wisely) avoids making quantitative statements and seems allergic to statistics -- there is not one number to support her claim -- her underlying argument is clear: America's teachers are out of control! Parents, hide your children!

Netter goes on to retell a series of increasingly shocking tales: A teacher is accused of kicking a 5-year-old girl in the face. Another sent a young student home with -- get ready for this, it's gross -- a plastic bag full of his own feces. And, of course, there are the countless tales of those unbalanced teachers who have sex with their underage charges.

As anyone who follows news can tell you, the media loves to report on teachers gone bad -- especially the ones who physically or sexually abuse their students. These stories are sensational, compelling and, most of all, horrifying. But it is a mistake to imagine that the actions of a few warped individuals have much to do with the teaching profession as a whole.

Netter's main "expert" source seems to be Anthony David Adams, a blogger whose site, detentionslip.org, covers weird, wacky and controversial school stories. (He calls himself the "Perez Hilton for public education.") His conclusion? Although there are a whole lot of great teachers out there, we can blame the bad ones on "an outdated public school system and low salaries." He thinks that "school boards should be focusing on bringing in teachers who want to foster creativity and not settle for just teaching to the standardized testing that has become so prevalent."

If we were talking about unqualified, negligent or otherwise incompetent teachers, Adams' point would be well taken. But are we really supposed to believe that it's a lack of creativity and an increased focus on high-stakes assessment that is leading (a few) teachers to hit or have sex with the kids in their classrooms?

Perhaps this why, when asked about this dubious trend, Francisco Negron, general counsel for the National School Board Association, gave Netter the only sane response possible: "There will always be the case, as in every part of society, where there are a few bad apples. Those bad apples are not representative of the profession as a whole."

What is lamentable about Netter's story, beyond the implication that legions of teachers all over the country have suddenly become sadists and libertines, is that, in its sensationalism, it glosses over the issues affecting most students' public education. The American education system is deluged with real, widespread crises, from inequality to overcrowding to underfunding. The problems Adams raises, though only tangentially connected to the subject at hand, are dire. But if Netter chose to cover them, instead, would we still be reading?

Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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