The ink was barely dry on front page headlines about the use of a Taser to break up a fight at East Forsyth High, when that troubled school found itself back in the news for yet another incident.
It seems that PE teacher and girls’ softball coach Mike Muse had texted one of his female students because he was concerned about her grades. Not long afterward, the girl told Muse and SRO James Deeney that 15-year-old Dillon Tschrnko was spreading rumors and telling other students that Muse’s texts were “weird.” Muse and Deeney then confronted Dillon in the school cafeteria to explain the serious consequences the boy’s actions could have on all parties concerned. Somewhere along the way, Muse’s language became course and his tone harsh. Audio of the entire confrontation was captured on Dillon’s cell phone, and tapes of the incident were later made available to the school principal and to the media.
Muse’s ire was understandable. Less than two months ago an East Forsyth teacher was charged with taking indecent liberties with a student, so the coach told Dillon, “This is not a good time to be making jokes and making accusations like that around this school.” Muse, a veteran teacher with a spotless record, was justifiably worried that false rumors could ruin his name, his career and his ability to earn a living. And so Muse’s anger toward Dillon escalated, and he told the boy, “I will sue you if I can find information for libel and f**king slander, and I will take you and your parents for every ounce of money, home, whatever you got.” Muse later apologized for his outburst, but some pundits and parents are calling for him to be fired.
It should be noted that Kernersville Police Chief Ken Gamble reviewed all texts between and among Muse, Deeney and the female student and found no reason to charge either the teacher or his officer with anything. Translation? Muse’s texts were proper, professional and innocent. The school board may still take action against Muse later this month, but meanwhile Dillon’s parents have moved him to another school following threats from other students.
This is a mess with multiple layers of legal, moral and ethical issues.
First there are those who say a teacher should never verbally abuse a student. Point taken. But these are extraordinary times we live in, and this school system has been wracked with one sex scandal after another. Had I been Coach Muse and some kid was spreading gossip that could get me fired, I would have blown up at him too. It doesn’t make such behavior acceptable, but that’s just the way it is.
Second is the matter of communications. I asked Superintendent Don Martin why he doesn’t just ban all written, spoken or electronic contact between teachers and students except during class time. After all, such a ban would eliminate the possibility of texts ever being misinterpreted. Martin cited first amendment freedoms, then added, “[W]e want teachers clarifying assignments, announcing game cancellations, changing practice times, and sending reminders to students.”
Third is the matter of defamation and redress. While Muse might have threatened to sue Dillon, his threat was hollow. According to defense attorney Clarke Dummit, Muse would have to bring suit against Dillon’s parents (because the boy is under age). Then he would have to prove malice. And even if Muse prevailed, under North Carolina law, the most he could collect from the parents is $2,000. That begs two questions: What is a man’s career and reputation worth?, and, Should a minor be held accountable for his actions?
Not long ago, Jason Ford, a Wiley Middle School teacher, almost lost his job when five students accused him of sexual misconduct. Later, the students confessed to having lied just to get back at him for disciplining them. Ford is more fortunate than the teacher in Roanoke, Va. who in 2005 was accused of sexual abuse. Distraught that no one believed in his innocence, the teacher committed suicide. Weeks later, he was exonerated. I don’t mean to overly dramatize my point, but rumors and false accusations are hate speech, and should be dealt with as such. The five Wiley students should be in a juvenile detention facility, but they’re not. The accuser in Roanoke should be in prison, but she is not. Like it or not, the laws designed to protect students against predatory teachers have created an environment that gives no protection to innocent teachers against predatory students.
Was Muse wrong to curse at a student? Absolutely. But while we must hold teachers to a higher standard than students, we shouldn’t hold them to a double standard.
Jim Longworth is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11am on WMYV (cable channel 15)