Q: I served on the board of a high school about 20 years ago. A former student is just now speaking out, saying that one of his teachers – long gone from the school – exhibited improper behavior toward him and others, and that he knew the board was made aware of it at the time and did nothing. Now we’re all being raked over the coals. I’ll admit that we did hear rumors, but never from students or their parents. And, when another teacher raised the issue with us, we did look into it. We never found any evidence of inappropriate touching or worse. It appears that this teacher invited his favorite male students to his house and took pictures of them exercising in gym clothes. While creepy, the students told us they regularly just laughed it off. This was a nationally-recognized teacher who had been at the school for years!
We appreciate that in today’s era of “#MeToo,” a board might be expected to do more, but hind-sight is always 20/20. What is a board’s culpability here – especially a board that served so many years ago? What can we, or others in our situation, do going forward?
A: Sadly, you are not the first board to face this sort of situation. The media is full of stories like yours, or worse. I’m not a lawyer, but I would think that there is legally little claim against the board this many years later. While the statute of limitations for sexual harassment varies state by state, most abide by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s rule, which requires that any declaration of damage be filed within 180 days. I am not aware of any state with a statute of limitations that stretches beyond a year. Further, I cannot imagine that the board of a high school did not carry Directors and Officers Insurance, which typically – though not always – protects board directors and officers against suits brought even after their period of service. The exceptions are if there was a willful or grossly negligent failure to act, or an intentional decision to take the wrong action or an action likely to harm someone. The courts generally ask whether the “prudent man” would have made a similar decision with the information known at the time. The fact that you did look into the situation and determined that no physical harm was occurring would probably have met the test in those years. In addition, as the board was comprised of volunteers, you are covered by the (somewhat limited) safeguards granted under state and federal volunteer protection acts.
This being said, the board is morally culpable for the emotional abuse this teacher inflicted on his students. There were many clues that should have raised red flags. While we want to believe that a teacher who cares so much about his students that he would invite them to his home is the sort of teacher we want in our schools, the fact that the invitation was only extended to young men, and specific young men at that, should have sent every board director’s ‘spidey senses’ tingling. Add to that, the strange behavior of having the students exercise for him in their gym shorts and his taking pictures of them…. The fact that the students never spoke up cannot be used to excuse away your lack of action. These were teenage boys whose natural bravado demands that they appear able to take care of themselves in any situation. Their sneering laughter was yet one more clue. They were not seeing this as funny, but rather as discomforting. Why then, continue to visit the teacher at his home? This was an authority figure who was well respected. He could also play a significant role in determining the colleges they got into. There was also safety in numbers. The students were watching out for their friends.
You are right. We are now viewing this experience through the cultural lens of 2018, and we did interpret things differently 20 years ago. However, we cannot ignore the reality that, as we now know – based on a massive amount of literature and a grown man who came back to challenge the board – this teacher did do lasting damage. So, what do you do going forward? Accept responsibility. Admit that as a board you did not take the situation seriously enough. Volunteer to work with school representatives to make policy recommendations for the future. Your unique perspective will be extremely valuable to the process. Or, offer to speak at other schools around the community to share what you learned from this experience that could help current boards deal better with their own challenges. And, most importantly, apologize to the man who braved ridicule to come forward to make his voice heard.
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Terrie Temkin, Ph.D. is an internationally-recognized governance and planning expert, as well as the editor of You and Your Nonprofit Board: Advice and Tips from the Field’s Top Practitioners, Researchers and Provocateurs. She is a founding principal of CoreStrategies for Nonprofits, Inc., which interweaves business development, governance, board development, fund development, PR/marketing and public policy to strengthen organizational capacity. She invites your questions and comments. Contact her at 888-458-4351 Ext. 83 or TerrieTemkin@CoreStrategies4Nonprofits.com. Meanwhile, check out the CoreStrategies’ website for back issues of “On Nonprofits” and other articles at www.CoreStrategies4Nonprofits.com.