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A young teacher. A troubled teen. A career at stake. Perils of trying to help students.


Update on Tuesday: From The Palm Beach Post:

Under mounting public and political pressure, Palm Beach County Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa Tuesday abandoned his plan to fire a popular Boca Raton High School teacher accused of violating district policies while she informally mentored a mentally troubled student.

History teacher Samantha Major will be allowed to continue teaching at a different county school and will receive only a written reprimand under a new settlement agreed to by Major and the school district.

The reversal by Avossa, whose administration tried unsuccessfully to arrest Major and then moved to fire her, came in the wake of a large public outcry and opposition from some school board members after a story about the case in The Palm Beach Post on Sunday.

Original blog:

An ex Florida teacher living in Canton alerted me to a bizarre story out of Palm Beach, a district now run by Robert Avossa, former Fulton County school chief.

Former Florida teacher Ashley Cline, founder of the Georgia teacher group Teachers Rally Against Georgia Insurance Changes, better known as TRAGIC, said:

I would like to bring one of my former students to your attention - one of the best and brightest that I had the pleasure of teaching - who came back and dedicated her life to teaching and mentoring at-risk students at our school, Boca Raton Community High School. What has and is happening to Samantha Major is a true travesty, and deserves national coverage. She was not only awarded the ‘New Teacher of the Year’ award at Boca High, but was referred to as ‘an absolute powerhouse of compassion, kindness, thoughtfulness, professionalism and excellence’ by a supervisor.

Ms. Major was part of the school's official mentoring program, and had an unfortunate situation occur between a student (who was documented as later pathologically lying in addition to being mentally unstable), and later her parents along with the Palm Beach County School district... which is not only trying to fire her, but stuck her in bus transportation - filing paperwork alphabetically during its investigation - and even tried to bring forth criminal charges. This is yet another example of why our young people are avoiding this noble and necessary profession like the plague.

Major’s saga reflects the pitfalls facing teachers who step forward, who go above and beyond to help students. Major was warned by colleagues that the 15-year-old student seeking her out was deeply troubled, but the young teacher thought she could help. The decision may cost the 26-year-old her career.

I found the story interesting because I have seen many teachers whose efforts to help students extend well beyond the classroom. And that has always surprised me. Not only because of the time that teachers give over to helping their students, but also because of the liability risks involved, as this story highlights. Yet, often the most beloved teachers are those who act as mentors or even second parents to troubled students.

The case was the subject of an excellent story in the Palm Beach Post, where a reader posted this response:

Best just to do your teaching job, report when indicated/necessary, and don't get overly involved outside of class and the school day. Why didn't the teacher ask the parents to meet with her about her concerns? She obviously should have listened more to her teacher colleagues, but young, eager new teachers often don't. Angering a set of parents where dad is a lawyer is unlikely to end well. Now the teacher's the big loser in this mess that may cost her career. School administrations are most often going to throw teachers under the bus. It's cheaper than fighting in court to support them.

The girl's mother told the Post that Major “took advantage” of her daughter’s mental illness, and that their relationship was a contributing factor to her suicide attempt. “If at any time Ms. Major legitimately felt there was any reason for concern, she had a duty to follow school protocol and notify the school dean or other school officials, which she did not,” she said.

As a result of what happened, Major was yanked from the classroom and from her job as a soccer coach. School district police even attempted to charge her with a crime: failure to report child abuse but prosecutors declined to prosecute. The school board votes this week on her dismissal.

Here are excerpts from the Post’s story about the case, which the Palm Beach school board will take up Wednesday. Please read the full Post story before commenting:

Some other teachers warned Major: The girl was troubled and not to be trusted, according to a copy of the investigative report provided to The Palm Beach Post by Major’s attorney. She was not one of Major’s official mentees, but the teacher felt a compulsion to help her all the same. “She needed somebody to talk to, is what it seemed like,” she said. “It’s just sort of understood that you are there to aid these hurting and at-risk students.”

Indeed, Boca High explicitly encouraged such efforts, pointing to them as key to the school’s academic success...Yet the school district had given Major no special training in relating to students with mental health disorders, she said. Major was on her own, and dealing with a sort of student she had never encountered.

But the 15-year-old girl reaching out to her wasn’t like the others. Her grades were solid, but records indicate she had problems much deeper and less obvious – a behavioral disorder that manifested as a desperate need for attention and a penchant for lying elaborately and often. With time, the teacher grew wary. But she didn’t put the girl off. What good, after all, was a mentor who shirked the most troubled cases?

In a matter of months, the mentoring efforts would culminate in Major – who a supervisor once dubbed “an absolute powerhouse of compassion, kindness, thoughtfulness, professionalism and excellence” – banished from the classroom, relegated to months of paperwork duties in a school bus depot, targeted for criminal investigation and slated for termination. The county school board will consider the proposal to fire her Wednesday.

 


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.