ELKO – The Elko County School District is hoping to tighten up its regulations policing interactions between students and teachers in the wake of a teacher’s arrest on sex charges.
Tennille Whitaker is a fourth-grade teacher who was arrested Monday afternoon on charges of engaging in sexual conduct with two high school students at Wells Combined School.
Whitaker, 40, has since posted bail and is on paid administrative leave while the investigation continues.
Elko County School District Superintendent Jeff Zander thinks Whitaker’s arrest come as a result of violating the regulations the school district already has in place and did not think she exploited any kind of a loophole within the guidelines.
Even though it did not appear to be an issue in this case, Zander said he would like to take a look at the social media policy to ensure that teachers have clear guidelines to follow going forward.
“There’s a lot of gray area out there so we’ll try to tip-toe through this thing and try to prevent these conversations from becoming personal. We want these conversations to be informational only.”
Zander said Clark County School District is also looking into the issue and he has reached out to them to see how they amend their policies.
Providing more stringent guidelines to police interactions between students and teachers has not always been popular with the board of trustees.
The district first drafted regulations for maintaining professional boundaries between staff and students in February of 2012. The idea was met with resistance from some board members concerned the regulations would go too far and deter teachers from engaging in healthy personal relationships with their students.
The school district did eventually adopt a policy regulating these interactions during a meeting in April 2016 that was voted for unanimously but board president Thad Ballard said at the meeting that he was still concerned about the unintended consequences.
“The overall tone of the policy was cautionary, ‘be careful what you’re doing’,” he said at a school board meeting on April 12, 2016. “I wouldn’t want the policy to discourage anybody from having meaningful relationships with their students or their parents because we’ve adopted a policy to address poor choices of a very, very small minority of people.”
Zander is hoping that recent events will make the board less resistant to any suggested changes to the policy since similar incidents have highlighted the importance of having policies in place.
“We’re seeing more and more of this taking place. We haven’t seen these types of incidences take place in our schools,” he said. “Now I think it’s on everybody’s radar now and it’s important to put policies in place to protect our kids, our staff, the district and the community.”
The school district may look at the teacher conduct policy going forward but it feels like the mechanisms in place for reporting rules violations are working as intended.
A Wells employee reported that Whitaker was behind closed doors with a student, which put her in violation of district’s policy even though she had not yet been accused of any criminal activity.
Zander said the investigation hit a snag when witnesses were reluctant to come forward.
“You need to have people provide honest reports of what took place and, unfortunately, we just couldn’t get anything in writing with reports of what took place,” he said. “We couldn’t get anything in writing where anything had happened that was against the law.”
Assistant Superintendent Mike Smith said the school district also would have moved more quickly if the initial investigation by the Elko County Sheriff’s Department had produced more leads.
“Had that happened differently, had they called us after five weeks and given us something to follow up on, we would have run a parallel employment investigation at that point in time,” he said. “When the sheriff office calls you and says ‘our investigation turned up nothing’ then that’s what you’ve got.”
Despite some of the difficulties in enforcing some of the regulations Smith feels like the district has been proactive in designing its guidelines.
Smith helped draft the original guidelines after reading about similar policies that had been adopted in other school districts and feels like the school district will continue to be forward-looking with its rules.
“I think we’re ahead of the curve nationally,” he said. “I don’t think very few districts, back in 2012, had any inkling of boundaries. It was sort of a new thing.”