For the first time in years, the Omaha Public Schools held intensive training on spotting, preventing and reporting sexual misconduct between school staff and students.
The training comes just months after two high-profile abuse trials involving educators from OPS and the Ralston district, but OPS Superintendent Mark Evans said those cases weren't the impetus for the all-day presentations aimed at 250 school administrators and supervisors.
“To me, it's an issue you need to talk about on an annual basis. You don't take this lightly in any regard,” he said.
Evans first encountered the training in Kansas, where he previously worked. Staff at Wichita-area schools sat in on similar training after two Clearwater, Kan., teachers were arrested in 2011 for having sex with students.
OPS changed its abuse reporting procedures last year amid complaints that the district sat on allegations made by several female students against Nathan Hale teacher Shad Knutson. In June, Knutson was sentenced to nine to 14 years in prison, after being convicted of two abuse charges related to a months-long illicit relationship he instigated with a former middle school student.
In accordance with state law, OPS staff must now notify law enforcement officials within 24 hours of a sexual misconduct allegation by a student.
Evans said the policy was reviewed during the training sessions, which took place Nov. 18 and 19. Leadership teams composed of administrators who attended the training will spend the next several months delivering a two-hour, abbreviated version to teachers and staff at each OPS school.
The training was conducted by representatives of the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center and was provided by the U.S. Department of Education at no charge to OPS.
Evans said he didn't know the last time the district held similar, lengthy training on the issue.
During the discussions, Evans said, staff watched videos depicting possible red-flag situations and then debated behavior that could cross the line from friendly and caring to inappropriate or predatory.
“You want staff to have a good relationship with their students, but there's things you have to be aware of, or things you could see that are inappropriate — comments, hugging, safe touching areas,” Evans said. “We had a lot of conversations about hugging.”
Staff talked through different scenarios: Can you tutor a student outside school? Is texting or friending students on Facebook OK? How can employees protect themselves against false accusations or report suspected inappropriate behavior by their colleagues?
Those scenarios can be gray areas unaddressed in school policies — OPS, for example, doesn't have a specific policy on texting between teachers and students.
“Oftentimes, the staff members don't even recognize what they're doing is putting themselves in jeopardy by being in a nonschool setting with an individual student,” Evans said.
Evans said feedback from staff seemed to be positive, though some administrators expressed concern about squeezing more training into packed school schedules. The plan is to require staff to attend a refresher course each year, he said.
“I don't think I heard any staff member say we've done anything like this, as focused and intensive, in the past,” Evans said.
Chris Proulx, president of the Omaha Education Association, said teachers are still waiting to see how the training is rolled out, but he said the district needed to have a more in-depth, nuanced conversation that went beyond a recitation of reporting statutes.
“It's not enough for teachers just to know what the law says in terms of reporting,” Proulx said. “I think everybody already knows that. The bigger challenge is knowing what sort of things rise to that level of being necessary to report.”
Several other metro-area districts review mandatory reporting and misconduct policies on an annual basis. In Gretna, Superintendent Kevin Riley said staff members are reminded of the guidelines at the start of each school year, and new teachers receive more detailed training.
New staff at Papillion-La Vista schools participate in an online training module, and existing staff are asked to re-read the policies every year.
Bellevue is taking preliminary steps to create its own misconduct rules, spokeswoman Amanda Oliver said. The district currently follows state reporting guidelines and has a code of conduct for staff, but a more detailed policy could be in the works that would be followed by more comprehensive staff training.