Teachers deal with students’ secrets

I was crying (and my teacher) looked at (my self harm scars) – he didn’t say anything but he saw them. He said “Come into my office, we’re going to talk about some things.” And I told him … Everything.

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While many students claim to have a close relationship with their teachers, few are willing to share such personal details as their mental health history.

Even fewer students are willing to share sensitive information if they fear they will be disciplined for it.

Yet what many don’t realize is faculty members, as mandated reporters, are only legally required to report suspected child abuse, which can be either physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse or neglect.

Behaviors that are illegal, but don’t fall into these categories, such as drug use or consumption of alcohol by minors, will not necessarily be reported by an adult on campus.

When a teacher learns of a student’s suspicious behaviors, it is up to them as to whether or not they will report it.

For Advanced Placement Psychology and Peer Counseling teacher Natalie Elkin, this dilemma presents itself frequently. The subject matter she teaches is more personal than most classes taught at Granite Bay High School, and because of this, students who have taken a class with her see her as someone they can confide in.

Elkin said for the majority of cases, she would not report a student for engaging in illegal activities, if it had happened off campus and had not threatened anyone.

“The issue is safety and not so much health,” Elkin said. “I certainly don’t condone it and I certainly don’t approve of it, but I don’t see them necessarily being at risk.”

For Elkin, only incidents which immediately threaten students necessitate a full-fledged report.

“I’ve had students come to me, concerned about a friend,” Elkin said. “At that point, they were so concerned because this friend was doing so much drinking, they were worried about the person’s safety. I did report that. For me, it’s the difference between unhealthy choices and life-threatening choices.”

Similarly, drama teacher Kyle Holmes said if he had reason to believe it was a lifestyle a student was maintaining regularly, whether on or off campus, he would at least have a conversation, voicing his concerns.

Some students feel uncomfortable with the idea that their secrets may be shared with others, even if the intention is to protect them.

One junior girl who wished to remain anonymous once shared her struggle with depression, body dysmorphia and self harm with a teacher on campus.

“(During our conversation, the teacher) basically told me ‘You need to talk to your mom or I will,’” she said. “I had been in fourth period with him and I went home 20 minutes later, and as soon as I was walking through the door he was on the phone with my mom.”

She said that while the teacher’s intentions were good, she does not believe it really helped her overcome her conditions.

“(After the call, my mom) had my dad come over and we all sat outside, and we had a very long talk,” she said. “At the time, I don’t think it really helped me at all … It’s not anything that anybody else can do to help me; I have to do it myself. The talk that my parents gave to me didn’t really help me – it kind of made it worse.”

Though she was uncomfortable, she doesn’t blame the teacher for what he did.

“He realized (I) wasn’t the normal (me),” the junior girl said. “ I don’t want to say the word report because that sounds really official … He wasn’t being a teacher in that moment, he was sharing his experiences with me as well and he was just being a nice human being and caring.”

While students are careful about what they say around teachers, teachers might be put in the uncomfortable position of reporting something that was told in confidence.

Both Elkin and Holmes always tell the student beforehand if they decide to interfere.

“There’s no such thing as off the record when you’re talking to a teacher,” Holmes said. “I have had conversations where … at the end of the conversation I have to say ‘I need to let you know, I have to follow up on this legally. You might hate me for it, but I have to.’”

In some cases, the student willingly goes to an adult for help because they realize they are unable to handle the situation alone.

One junior boy who was hesitant to share specifics said that he contacted an assistant principal because he was involved in an incident concerning drugs.

“I did go to ( assistant principal Brian) McNulty to talk to him about the situation that I was in at the time, because I was worried things would get too far,” the junior boy said. “He wanted me to write (my story) down … and he told me after it was all handled to not do that again, or else I’ll get more than suspension … I wanted to end it, and I needed help.”

McNulty said all GBHS adults’ priority is to keep the students on campus out of harm’s way.

“As certificated adults, we are mandated by court to keep you guys safe,” McNulty said. “In order to do that, sometimes we have to contact outside agencies … that’s our job.”

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