Virginia school officials consider state guidelines to prevent sexual misconduct
Sunday, January 9, 2011; 9:39 PM
The Virginia Board of Education is considering its first statewide guidelines for the prevention of sexual misconduct in public schools in response to recent abuse cases, such as the one involving former Manassas teacher Kevin Ricks, officials said.
The proposed guidelines would target behavior that has led to student sexual abuse, and they seek to limit situations that could blur the lines in a teacher-student relationship. The guidelines suggest strict limits on communication, physical contact and socializing with students.
Patricia I. Wright, state superintendent of public instruction, said Virginia school officials have seen 120 cases of sexual misconduct over the past decade, most of them discovered and reported after a teacher was arrested or prosecuted. She said the guidelines would prevent such incidents and allow school systems to discipline teachers who are crossing the line.
"All of these cases put together, with the Ricks case, led me to want to do something more formal in terms of guidance to school divisions," Wright said. "Certainly the Ricks case is by far the worst one that we've dealt with, and I hope we will never see another case like it."
Ricks, 50, a former Osbourn High School teacher, was arrested in February and convicted of sexually abusing a 16-year-old boy who had been a student at the school. A Washington Post investigation, the findings of which were published in July, revealed that Ricks had abused boys over three decades and had infiltrated their lives by plying them with gifts, taking them on trips, staying in touch with them via Internet social networking sites and throwing alcohol-soaked parties.
The proposed guidelines target behaviors that Ricks exhibited, recommending that schools prohibit teachers from communicating with individual students on Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace and via text messaging.
Teachers also would be prohibited from spending time alone with students or socializing with them outside school, from giving or accepting lavish gifts, and from engaging in romantic or sexual relationships with students of any age.
Such guidelines might have allowed the Manassas school system to discipline or dismiss Ricks before he victimized the student. The family of a Fauquier County boy went to Manassas school officials to complain that Ricks was stalking boys on the Internet. Several of Ricks's students were friends with him on Facebook, and communications on that site led to Ricks's arrest.
The guidelines, presented to the board in November, would for the first time offer a framework for the state's 132 school systems, which develop their own sexual misconduct policies. Wright said the state has required school systems to have such a policy but has never provided specific guidance.
Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, conducted the research for the guidelines and described them as a follow-up to 2008 legislation requiring schools to develop such policies and report sexual violations.
"It's important to have very specific policies focused on the conduct that typifies these cases," Pyle said.
Over the course of his career, Ricks was adept at avoiding the public and private school traps designed to catch abusers, moving from school to school and state to state.