In the early 1960s, when he was teaching eighth-graders in rural Goochland County near Richmond, David Johnson confronted a young man suspected of stealing cash from the school cafeteria.
When the student denied the theft, Johnson didn't think twice about it: He frisked him and found a fistful of $5 and $10 bills the student had stuffed in his underwear.
"I knew he had the money," recalled Johnson, now director of Virginia's statewide teacher's union. "He 'crinkled' when I patted him down."
Back then, the frisking of a pupil might not have raised many eyebrows. But not so today, as was demonstrated last month when a teacher at Arlington's Taylor Elementary School was disciplined for allegedly forcing several third-grade boys to strip to their underwear in a search for stolen items.
"Back in the 'Dark Ages,' teachers and administrators barely thought of student rights or privacy," said Johnson, head of the 44,000-member Virginia Education Association. "I'm not sure that I would do the same thing again today that I did 20 years ago."
Indeed, say some educators, the incident at Taylor Elementary illustrates how complex teachers' classroom roles have become.
"We have to be mother, father, counselor and a friend, and now we have to be an attorney, too," said Susan Rafferty, a part-time teacher and president of the 800-member Arlington Education Association.
"We have to tell our teachers about the legal ramifications of their actions. We forewarn them to avoid situations that could end up in litigation or disciplinary action. But we're not always successful."
In the Arlington incident, Kathy Houston, who had taught at Taylor since 1976, was removed from the school and given a substitute teaching assignment pending an investigation into the searches she allegedly conducted in early Feburary, school officials said last week. The reprimand and reassignment came after several Taylor parents complained about the searches, which apparently were prompted by the recent disappearance of students' watches.
Houston could not be reached for comment last week.
"This incident will have tremendous unseen ramifications," said Daniel Brown, a spokesman for the Arlington's public schools. "No school wants to be in the spotlight, especially if it's a negative spotlight. Taylor is a very proud, a very excellent school. It never had anything like this happen."
School administrators in Northern Virginia say searches like the one at Taylor are rare, in part because of the state's conservative attitudes towards education.
"Searches go on across this state and across the country, but they aren't usually of any great magnitude," said Ben Howerton Jr., assistant state superintendent for personnel and field services. The state keeps no records on the number of searches or subsequent disciplinary action against pupils or teachers, Howerton said.
Few localities have codes of ethics for teachers, but most maintain general guidelines for classroom discipline, as well as strict procedures for teacher discipline. Fairfax County, for instance, maintains a list of teacher "rights and responsibilities," which says its educators will "practice the profession according to the highest ethical standards and will treat each and every child with care, dignity and respect."
"The whole area of student discipline--searches, privacy, corporal punishment--that's where you're constantly being tested and asked how far you can go," said Warren Eisenhower, Fairfax's assistant superintendent for personnel services. "In the late '60s and early '70s, there was some cynicism on the part of youngsters about what 'rights' they had. But since then, those rights have become clear, and we have to respond to that."
In Arlington, which has a four-tiered system of rating teacher performance, teachers are expected to maintain "a classroom atmosphere of security and trust" and to be "encouraging, understanding and helpful," according to the performance guidelines.
"There is such a wide spectrum in teachers' approaches to situations," Rafferty said. "What happened at Taylor elementary was a once-in-a-blue-moon incident."
Still, when those isolated incidents occur, their impact can be system-wide, officials say.
"We're still wrestling with this one," Brown of Arlington said. "I think several people in the system are afraid that teachers now may become tentative about discipline in the classroom.
"Being tentative--unsure of one's self--that immobilizes and stifles spontaneous actions by the teaching staff. And when that happens, you've lost the whole ballgame."