Virginia school officials consider state guidelines to prevent sexual misconduct

By Josh White
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

He was fired from his job as an English teacher and dorm master at a school in Atlanta in 1986 after he was twice reprimanded for being with students in dorm rooms after hours; he lost his teaching job in Japan because of allegations of shoplifting; he left the Danville, Va., school system after administrators there learned he did not have a Virginia teaching license; and he left the Baltimore school system after he was convicted of theft.

In Caroline County, Md., where Ricks taught for three years, he was under constant scrutiny over concerns about ethics and insubordination. According to documents obtained by The Post, Col. Richardson High School's principal issued multiple reprimands in 2002 and 2003, one for conducting a personality survey of students that included a question of a sexual nature and appeared to be part of a ploy to learn more about one boy.

But the superintendent of schools there did not follow recommendations that Ricks be suspended, writing at the time that he hoped the principal "has your attention this time and we can get through this year with no further incidents, errors in judgments, or even the appearance of behavior or actions that are less than stellar."

Shortly after his contract was not renewed in 2003, Ricks was banned from school property in 2004 after allegations surfaced that he was stalking a foreign exchange student who had lived with him. But nothing appeared on his record, and he moved on. Ricks was charged last month with sexually assaulting that boy.

The ability of Ricks and other abusers to move from school to school is addressed in the proposed guidelines.

"Division-level policies are critical in the prevention of misconduct," according to documents supporting the guidelines. "Well-designed local policies - with specific consequences for willful violations - also can play a role in preventing individuals who have been dismissed - but not prosecuted - for misconduct from moving to a new school division and engaging in further misconduct with students."

Wright said she hopes the guidelines will offer local schools a foundation for developing their own policies.

"A vast majority of teachers go to work every day to help young people, and sometimes the lines get blurred," she said. "Well-intended people and good intentions sometimes lead to unintended consequences."

The Board of Education is scheduled to take up the proposed guidelines at a meeting Jan. 13.

Staff writers Jennifer Buske and Nick Anderson contributed to this report.

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