People need to know that state and district policies forbid teachers from spending time alone with students off site. The Bethel school board needs to do a better job enforcing these policies including making teachers and students aware of them.
By Nelson Oliveira
BETHEL — During a court hearing last week for a former Bethel teacher who sexually abused three children, the victims’ families told a judge that Brian Stroh seemed to them like a devoted friend.
He would take the boys to restaurants, concerts, sporting events, amusement parks and sometimes to his own house to play video games, according to court testimony.
“It all seemed so wonderful at the time,” one mother said.
Stroh was “everyone’s favorite teacher,” the woman’s husband wrote in a letter she read in court.
What those families didn’t realize was that the teacher was violating district and state policy — even before the sexual assault took place.
Schoolteachers are prohibited from spending time with students outside a school setting — even just to give them a lift — without another adult present, said Christine Carver, superintendent of schools in Bethel.
The district also urges teachers who might run into students outside of school to keep their interactions in a public setting.
“Teachers are role models and need to maintain a professional relationship with students and parents,” Carver said.
Stroh also failed to follow the Connecticut Code of Professional Responsibility for Teachers and the guidelines recommended by the Teacher Education and Mentoring Program, both of which include admonitions to maintain appropriate boundaries.
“Although all teachers want to maintain positive rapport with students, teachers are not friends; they are professionals and should maintain professional interactions,” a TEAM training module says.
Carver said that the district had no knowledge that Stroh had befriended some of his students and their families.
But while teachers are forbidden to have such contacts outside school, the parents involved in Stroh’s case are not the only ones unaware of such rules.
Dennis O’Brien, who has three kids in the Bethel school system, said he was not familiar with the policy. Although he doesn’t blame the district for what happened, he wishes there was better communication about teacher ethics.
Even Stroh’s attorney, Norman Pattis, said the case should be a wake-up call to every parent.
“This case sends a message to the community,” Pattis told the court on Thursday. “People need to be more suspicious and ask more questions.”
Stroh, 31, of New Fairfield, was a first-grade teacher at Berry Elementary School when State Police learned that he sexually assaulted three boys — ages 6, 9, and 11 — during a sleepover in his house.
He pleaded no contest to risk of injury to a minor and promoting a minor in an obscene performance, and was sentenced Thursday to 18 months in prison and 25 years of probation.
During the sentencing proceedings, Stroh told the court there were “years of nothing but positive interactions” between him and the victims’ families.
He said he sometimes volunteered to watch one of the boys when the child’s mother was at work.
“I think that’s crazy,” O’Brien said. “It’s mixing business with pleasure… I would not let my kids’ teachers hang out with my children.”
Bethel was one of at least three Fairfield County towns where a teacher was accused of sexual assault last year.
Former Wilton public schools teacher and Sacred Heart University instructor Timothy Leonard was charged last February with sexually assaulting a 14-year-old boy in a movie theater parking lot.
In March, a first-year science teacher at Danbury High School was accused of inappropriate sexual contact with a 17- year-old male student. Police said Kayla Mooney, 24, of Danbury, had sex with the youth twice.
Mooney had a typical teacher-student relationship with the boy until he invited her to a concert on Halloween night at a downtown club, according to court records. After that, police said, they began trading emails on their school-issued accounts and then switched to cell phone messages.
Since Stroh’s behavior came to light, Carver said, the district has “reinforced” its ethical rules. But she urged parents to be fully aware of who their children are with.
“As a parent, I think that you always need to be cautious and vigilant about who you’re allowing your children to spend time with, especially when they’re unsupervised,” she said. “That should be a top priority.”
Another Bethel parent, Amy Gusitsch, agreed that parents should monitor their children’s interaction with teachers as closely as possible.
“As a parent, I would just recommend to be as involved in as many ways as you can with your children and with the schools,” she said. “I know it’s hard for parents who work, but be in communications and try to know what’s going on.”
It is interesting to note from The Children’s Center for Psychiatry that of children in 8th through 11th grade, about 3.5 million students (nearly 7%) surveyed reported having had physical sexual contact from an adult (most often a teacher or coach). The type of physical contact ranged from unwanted touching of their body, all the way up to sexual intercourse. And this statistic increases to about 4.5 million children (10%) when it takes other types of sexual misconduct into consideration, such as being shown pornography or being subjected to sexually explicit language or exhibitionism.