We usually encourage teachers who take a personal interest in students. Not always, though. Sometimes, we figure it is going too far.
This case involves such allegations.
28-year-old Elizabeth Backler (hereinafter, the “Defendant”) was a North Shore educator and swim coach at north Andover High School. While she is no longer so employed, that is where the facts at issue are alleged to have taken place.
The Commonwealth claims that, in 2014, the Defendant engaged in an “abuse of power’’ by giving a 16-year-old female student prescription drugs, taking her to dinner and to the Defendant’s Newbury home. She is also accused of giving the student a number of drugs to aid her shoulder pain. According to the Boston Globee, those drugs include the narcotic painkiller oxycodone and muscle relaxers. These would include oxycodone and one count of distributing diazepam, a benzodiazepine.
The Defendant no longer works for North Andover Public Schools, but is employed as a teacher in Amesbury, where officials say she has been suspended.
The Commonwealth sought $1,500 bail.
The prosecutor argued that, “This is somebody who is currently in a position of authority with students being employed as a teacher,…She is [accused of] providing at least, according to these allegations, pills . . . that in today’s society are a gateway to something more.’’ Assistant District Attorney Mader added, “Quite frankly, this is an abuse of power on behalf of this defendant.’’
According to the Commonwealth, the Defendant became close to the student while coaching her in the girls’ swim team. Ada Mader describes the relationship as “inappropriate” and said that it included taking the girl to physical therapy appointments, texting, and exchanging gifts.
Apparently, the police interviewed the Defendant in June after the teen’s mother reported concerns about the relationship between the coach and her daughter.
At the time, the police say that the Defendant “did acknowledge that she believed she had gotten too involved with that student and went on to say that there was no inappropriate contact.’’
The police report said that while returning from swim meets at Regis College in Weston and Harvard University in Cambridge, the Defendant handed a single pill each time to the teenager who had complained of shoulder pain. The swimmer fell asleep. On another occasion, the Defendant is said to have given the girl a prescription bottle of what she called muscle relaxers.
“She told the victim not to tell her mother that she was giving her the pills,’’ Ada Mader added.
That is always a red flag.
Judge Mark Sullivan released the Defendant on personal recognizance.
Speaking to reporters, defense counsel said that the Defendant is a “highly regarded teacher” who has done “great things for a lot of kids.” Counsel also stated that the case came as “a shock and she’s just going to try to get through it…We’re ready to fight this. She maintains her innocence.”
<strong>Attorney Sam’s Take On Crossing That Line
A couple of things are important to keep in mind.
First of all, the Defendant has pleaded “not guilty” to all counts. Second, there is no allegation of any sexual conduct between the Defendant and the student.
Now, the drug allegations would be the same whether the Defendant and the girl were teacher-student, between friends or even between spouses. For those charges, the distribution of the drugs is all that is necessary to prove against her.
Obviously, however, the public interest in this is not simply around the drugs. It is about the allegedly inappropriate relationship.
Let’s face it…the suspicion in such a case would normally lead folks to the thought of sexual impropriety. When considering this case, it is therefore vital that whoever is representing the Defendant watch out for that and be ready to underscore time and time again that nothing of the sort is even alleged, let alone proven.
In such cases, the Commonwealth might try to engage the services of an expert witness to describe the Defendant’s actions as “grooming” the student for later sexual acts. However, a great deal of time has gone by since this actions at issue and no sexual acts have been attempted. This is but one of the many arguments counsel must be ready with in representing the Defendant.
There is a bigger question here which often leads to questionable prosecutions. What exactly is “inappropriate” in various cases?
Clearly, if it were proven that the Defendant gave illegal drugs to anyone, much less an underage student, it could lead to one or more criminal convictions in its own right. However, impropriety itself is not a crime.
There does seem to be a trend however, for the Commonwealth to attempt to prosecute such behavior if at all possible. It is the same way that mistakes are often prosecuted as white collar crimes.
“Ok, Sam, we are duly frightened we will be seen as inappropriate. What is the point?”
I am really not sure…except that find that many clients become clients because they are so sure that what they do made sense to them…so the Commonwealth will have to see it the same way.
The Commonwealth, however, often doesn’t.
So, in the words of the old television show Hill Street Blues…
“Let’s be careful* out there”
*if not paranoid…!