Last week, Sussex Technical High School special education and sociology teacher Charles Coursey, 38, was arrested for allegedly having a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old female student.
Coursey was charged with three counts of first-degree sexual abuse of a child by a person of trust and two counts of dealing in child pornography, among other charges. He was being held at Sussex Correctional Institute on $80,000 cash bail.
Sussex Tech Public Relations Coordinator Carolyn O’Neil said that the district was aware of Coursey’s arrest but declined to comment further, beyond a written statement from the district.
“The arrest was the result of allegations, which came to the attention of the District and were immediately reported to the Delaware State Police,” said O’Neil in the statement. “Charles Coursey is suspended pending the completion of the investigation. State and federal law protect the privacy rights of district employees. Thus, the district is not in a position to release additional information.”
According to the Delaware State Police, Coursey and the student allegedly began texting each other while in school, which led to them meeting outside of school and engaging in a sexual relationship. During that time, it is alleged that Coursey also sent the student obscene photos of himself.
Sussex Tech has dealt with such issues in the past. In the most recent case, in December, substitute teacher Meagan Gordon pleaded guilty to an obscenity charge following her arrest for allegedly showing a 15-year-old male student naked pictures of herself and texting him with suggestive messages.
O’Neil told the Coastal Point this week that she was unable to provide a copy of staff guidelines on such issues.
As it pertains to students, the Sussex Technical School District’s student handbook states that sexual harassment through written contact, electronic or otherwise; and visual, verbal and physical contact is an act of misconduct, which could lead to out-of-school suspension for the student, and to police notification and arrest, if appropriate.
The Indian River School District (IRSD), meanwhile, has adopted many policies regarding student-teacher relationships, including “Staff Conduct: Harassment or Misconduct toward Students,” which states that such conduct is “unacceptable” and “will not be tolerated,” whether it be oral, written or verbal.
“We think it’s extremely important,” said IRSD spokesperson Dave Maull, regarding district policy related to student-teacher conduct. “The safety and the security of our students are of the utmost importance in this district. So whatever we can do to assure that, the better. We feel these are very important policies that will safeguard our students.”
IRSD policy also states that any person employed by the district is prohibited from having any “sexual contact with, dating or being socially engaged” with any student in grades K-12 and will be subject to termination should such conduct occur.
Maull added that IRSD is currently working on drafting policy related to social media contact, such as Facebook and Twitter. Additionally, all 1,100 district employees recently went through a presentation regarding electronic and social media contact with students.
“We had a presentation about that very thing for every single employee in the district,” he noted. “We had an attorney come down that specializes in those types of cases, and she basically went in depth as to the type of conduct,” he explained. “Basically, what can get teachers in trouble, in the realm of Facebook, email, texting – that kind of thing.”
State Rep. Greg Lavelle of Delaware’s 11th District recently requested to meet with Attorney General Beau Biden to discuss his concerns with a “continuing series of sex crimes committed by Delaware educators.”
“There have been more than a dozen Delaware teachers charged in connection with alleged instances of sexual misconduct over the last five years,” said Lavelle, with several of those incidents having occurred at Sussex Tech. “As both a parent and a public servant, I find this disturbing on many levels.”
Lavelle added that he believes that increasing the penalties for such crimes could help combat the problem, but that he would like to better the prevention efforts, as well.
“I do think we need to look at more severe punishment, but that only deals with cases after a crime has occurred and the tragedy has unfolded. I think there may be other things we can do to prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place.”
Prevent Child Abuse Delaware (PCAD), a nonprofit organization based in Wilmington, is working on educating parents and students about how to be proactive in preventing sexual abuse.
“It’s not just Sussex County,” said PCAD Communications Director Kaitlin Olsen. “That’s hard to say, but it’s really just everywhere and it’s all across the socioeconomic statuses. It’s not just that it’s in a rural area or just in the city, or it’s just in schools, or it’s just the doctors. It’s really rampant, and I think that’s why organizations such as us are working so hard to do the prevention side of it.”
The organization has visited more than 60 Delaware schools, four of which were in the IRSD, to speak to kids about personal safety.
“It’s really something we all need to be aware of and working toward ending,” she said. “It’s hard to tell a kid who the safe people are when you have teachers that are doing this and doctors who are doing this, but you really have to give them an understanding that they have personal space. That they need to be able to openly talk to other people if they think something is wrong.”
Olsen said that minimizing one-on-one contact with a teacher will help safeguard children.
“It’s not really OK for there to be a one child, one adult ratio in a room. Say it’s a coach or a teacher — it’s really not safe for the child if it’s just one teacher and one child.”
PCAD has partnered with the Attorney General’s Office to help train 3,500 Delawareans on child sexual-abuse prevention through the Stewards of Children Program.
“This program has seven steps,” Olsen said. “One of the steps is parents really talking to their children and teaching their children that it’s better if they work in groups or, if they’re going to talk to their teacher after class, that they have someone waiting for them in the hallway – something that’s a little more like a buddy system for them.”
Olsen also said that social media and advances in technology have also made it difficult for teachers and students to set boundaries but that they must be set.
“With social media, a lot of teachers are saying, ‘If you have questions, you can Facebook me, text me about them or we can talk on Twitter.’ It seems like parents need to stay alert when their children are doing this and be a little more involved and aware and aware that this does happen in our state. It happens to a whole range of children. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, it can happen.”
Psychotherapist Dr. Michael Hurd said he questions whether boundary training for teachers would solve the seemingly growing problem.
“I don’t think it’s something that can be intellectually taught. A teacher would not do something like this because he or she is honestly ignorant of the fact that this is a bad idea for a lot of reasons. I maintain that people know what they’re doing, a lot more than we realize. A teacher not having sex with a student? Come on, it’s just common sense. No seminar is going to prevent this from happening.”
However, Hurd did say that that it is important for schools to maintain a strict rule and enforcement of policy prohibiting inappropriate relationships between students and teachers.
“All you can do is uphold the rule of ‘no sex with students’ and hold people accountable for the rule. If people violate the rule, they should be held accountable. I worry about public schools,” he added, “because there’s so much politics and unionization involved there that you perhaps cannot fire somebody until they have actually committed a felony.
“People who are responsible for running the schools should have leeway to fire people at the first sign of trouble. I once heard of a small private business where an employee got fired for bringing in inappropriate/sexual pictures to the staff. The owner just fired this person, as was his right. In a school, especially a public school, I don’t know how much leeway there is to exercise simple common sense. Anything to address that issue would be helpful.”
Hurd added that the victim of abuse should not have to remain a victim, and there are ways to help combat the damage that such abuse can cause.
“There’s no reason an adult who was victimized as a child has to remain a permanent victim or feel permanently ‘damaged’ because of what happened,” he said. “Perhaps he or she will feel that way, but I question that it’s fair and reasonable” to oneself, he continued, “to look at it this way.
“In a way, this is giving in to the victimization to let yourself feel like ‘damaged goods’ because of bad or wrong judgment that someone inflicted on you when you were too young to have any judgment yourself. This is often where counseling goes with people, to help them come to see it this way. One of the biggest challenges in life is to face the day not as a victim, but as a competent and happy adult, whether one was victimized in the past, or not.”