How far should educators go to help students?
Superintendent Casey Smitherman of Elwood Community School District in Indiana faces felony charges for insurance fraud, insurance application fraud, identity deception and official misconduct after she allegedly took a 15-year-old student to a health clinic and claimed he was her son so he could receive medical care, Education Week reports. Smitherman suspected the student — who lives with an elderly relative who doesn't have a car — had strep throat, and she wanted to make sure he got treatment, according to the Indianapolis Star.
While her attorney, Brian Williams, says she had good intentions from the start, Smitherman said she regrets what she did. William said Smitherman is keeping her job, and the prosecutor's office offered her a diversion agreement that, if she doesn't get arrested in a year, would dismiss her charges and allow her to admit to the crime.
- Daniel Domenech, executive director of The School Superintendents Association (AASA), told Education Week that "other than breaking the law, there are no limits" on educators helping students. However, he says, educators should caution becoming too emotionally attached to students to the extent that they view them as their adopted children, as well as complying with relevant policies and regulations.
Compared to what could have transpired, Smitherman is relatively fortunate in that she may be able to evade any long-term consequences of her alleged actions. It seems many, including the Elwood Community Schools Board's president, back her and understand her motives — even if they agree what she reportedly did was wrong — and the prosecutor’s office is working with her to avoid a criminal record. However, the situation allegedly caused her to take illegal measures, including placing the student she helped in a position where he felt he had to hide her actions.
While compassion is a necessary quality for an effective educator, school leaders and teachers need to keep the students' needs in perspective and make sure their responses to those needs are above board. Because school officials are often exposed to children enduring poverty and trauma in their personal lives, many feel the need to provide extra help. And while these actions can be seen as noble and sometimes necessary, they can also lead to a compassion fatigue, which can affect emotional health, job performance and judgment. Teachers who report such a condition sometimes end up leaving the classroom to protect themselves.
Students' neeeds are better addressed by schools and communities as a whole. By sharing the burden, educators can ensure these needs are met without feeling they have to bear the load alone. Schools with good networks of social workers can help locate resources, but this can be a double-edged sword, as educators — including Smitherman sometimes fear the consequences to the student and the family if these actions lead to something like a family separation.
As a result, more schools are turning to the community-centered model, which has health clinics and mental health services available on a school's campus. And additional services, including food pantries and school clothing closets, also help met student needs. These efforts can not only improve student attendance and academic achievement, but also help relieve teachers of too great a burden that comes as a result of compassion.
- Education Week How Far Should Educators Go to Help Students in Need?