The XX Factor

Unionized Guidance Counselors Can Spank Their Students?

What does it take to get a school employee fired these days? That’s the question many are asking in California after the disturbing case of a Berkeley High School counselor who remains employed after administrators found that he had spanked, stalked, and propositioned a student.

According to the complaint [pdf] filed Monday in federal court, high school student “Lilah R” was subjected to six months of chronic sexual harassment at school by her guidance counselor, Anthony Smith. She says that he engaged in such supremely creepy acts as spanking, excessive hugging, caressing her thighs and hair, rubbing his face into her chest, and smelling her neck. He lurked outside her classrooms and summoned her into his office to discuss matters like her beauty, womanly scent, and clothing choices, and whether she slept in the nude. He also asked if they could work out together at the gym and stay in touch over the summer so he could “share some feelings” with her.

It’s an account Berkeley Unified School District doesn’t deny: After Lilah reported Smith’s abusive behavior last spring, the district conducted an internal investigation and concluded that Smith had indeed “engaged in inappropriate and unprofessional behavior contrary to District policy”-not to mention state and federal sexual harassment laws-and that the school would take “appropriate personnel action.” This, it turned out, meant putting Smith on administrative leave for the duration of the investigation, which lasted less than a month. No dismissal, no transfer, not a single directive to limit contact with the victim. After the district refused the family’s repeated requests to transfer or remove Smith, Lilah obtained a temporary restraining order from a judge requiring Smith to stay 100 yards away from her at all times. But the school still wouldn’t budge. Lilah’s only consolation was a promise from the vice principal that she would be assigned to a different counselor with an office on a different floor.

Why is the school district willfully ignoring such egregious sexual misconduct? The answer, according to the school district, is union politics. Superintendent William Huyett, one of the other defendants named in the federal lawsuit, told Lilah’s family that collective bargaining with the school union would prevent administrators from transferring or dismissing Smith. Adding insult to injury, Huyett’s office told Lilah that the case was now more an issue of her “feelings” and the counselor’s conduct was neither “severe” nor “pervasive” enough to qualify as sexual harassment, so no dice on the transfer request. If Huyett had decided to classify the behavior as harassment, he would have had greater discretion to remove Smith.

Since the outbreak of pro-union protests in Wisconsin two months ago, there’s been an outpouring of popular support on the left for collective bargaining rights for educators ; we’ve been reminded of how much unions have done to secure living wages and humane working conditions for public employees.  Cases like this one are difficult to reconcile with that vision of collective bargaining: I’d hate to think progressive labor policies are shielding an obvious sexual predator from discipline and subjecting a child to a hostile educational environment. And I’d also hate to think that a few isolated cases are providing fodder for those who seek to tear down policies designed to help working families.