Brooklyn HS Teacher Illustrates Risks for Vulnerable Educators

Brooklyn James Madison HSUnlike most of the entries in this blog that involve teacher misconduct, this is not a story that begins or ends with high-tech malfeasance. It does, however, offer an unusually well-documented example of the role that emotional vulnerabilities can play in contributing to the various types of cybertraps that snare so many educators.

According to a story by the New York Post, Robert Cain, a 32-year-old special education teacher at James Madison High School in Brooklyn, NY quit his job in July 2014 after being confronted with evidence he engaged in a two-month-long sexual relationship with a female student in his “Participation in Government” class.

According to a report compiled by Richard Condon, the Special Commissioner of Investigation for New York City schools, Cain began his seduction of the girl not long after she first began taking his class. Condon’s report (a copy of which was provided to the Post) describes the seduction beginning with relatively innocuous conversations, but progressing fairly quickly to much more personal and inappropriate topics.

For instance, Cain began complimenting the young woman on her appearance and her clothes, and then began discussing his personal life with her. Cain talked to the victim about his two young children, described the emotional impact of his ongoing divorce, and told her that he and his wife were no longer having sex. In early November, Cain told her that he had “inappropriate” feelings for her. Later that same day, the two had sex in an empty room in the high school, and did so repeatedly over a two-month period.

Towards the end of December, the young woman reportedly asked Cain if they could spend time together outside of school. Cain took her to the Comfort Inn in Brooklyn, where he took photos of the two of them together. Video surveillance of the couple from the Comfort Inn and a copy of Cain’s credit card receipt played an integral role in persuading Cain to resign his position. He initially denied any sexual involvement with the girl, but when shown the surveillance video and receipt, told investigators that he would quit his job.

As the Post noted, it is not clear yet whether any criminal charges will be filed against Cain as a result of the relationship; if she was 17 or older, she could legally consent to a physical relationship. Unlike some states, New York does not have a statute that makes a sexual relationship between a teacher and a student a crime regardless of the student’s ability to consent.

I understand that my analysis of this situation is predicated on the belief that a sexual relationship between a teacher and a K-12 student is inherently abusive, even if the student is above the state’s legal age of consent. I recognize that not everyone agrees. That’s a debate for another day.

What this case does illustrate is how an educator’s private problems can make them more prone to engage in inappropriate behavior with a student. It also underscores the need for school districts to help create an environment in which this type of situation can be identified and prevented, either by the educator himself, or by his colleagues or supervisors. Part of the solution lies in creating a culture in which it is understood that educators have an ethical obligation to seek help for personal problems that could lead to an inappropriate relationship with a student; another part lies in making it clear that colleagues and administrators similarly have an ethical obligation to be alert for potential problems and to take action even when doing so is uncomfortable or feels like a possible invasion of privacy.

There was one further twist in this case that underscores a significant problem in the K-12 educational community. Condon reported that after Cain was confronted with the evidence from the motel, he told investigators “So what if I took [the student], it doesn’t matter anymore. I’m not a tenured teacher, and I won’t get a job teaching anywhere. I might as well resign.”

As it turns out, however, that wasn’t true. The New York Post reported this morning that a few weeks after he resigned from the New York City schools, he was hired by the Bergen Arts and Science Charter High School in Hackensack, New Jersey. Since his resignation from James Madison forestalled disciplinary charges and since no criminal charges were filed, Cain successfully passed a background check performed by the New Jersey State Police. Nihat Guvercin, CEO of the school’s parent organization, told the Post that Cain’s contract had not been renewed but declined to say why.

Allowing a possible predator to quietly resign and seek employment elsewhere is a phenomenon known as “passing the trash.” It is a serious problem not only with school systems but also with other organizations in which adults regular supervise children (such as the Catholic Church). For those looking for additional information on the topic, purchase a copy of Dr. Charles J. Hobson‘s book, “Passing the Trash: A Parent’s Guide to Combat Sexual Abuse/Harassment of Their Children in School.”

Both Dr. Hobson and I have the honor of serving on the Board of Advisors for Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct and Exploitation (S.E.S.A.M.E.), an organization devoted to raising awareness about this issue and advocate for solutions that protect children while still respecting the need for fairness and due process. Last fall, for instance, S.E.S.A.M.E.’s advocacy helped lead to the passage of Pennsylvania House Bill 1816, which imposes various reporting and disclosure requirements on educators who are applying for a new job. I’ll cover the provisions of that legislation in a separate post.

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