The storm began to swirl the day we returned from winter vacation.
The head of the language arts department at the school where I teach failed to come in for work. Her unexplained absence sent the administration scrambling. They called her phone with no results. They couldn’t locate her at area hospitals. She was in the wind.
By early afternoon, thanks to the local news, the entire faculty knew what had happened. She’d been booked into jail. The charges? Eventually they’d boil down to six felony counts for having sexual relations with a student over a long period of time, to which she’d plead “not guilty.” The details would grow more sordid in the coming weeks.
To say that I was stunned would be an understatement. I worked with her for seven years. We weren’t close, but we were respectful and cordial. And while she always had teens hanging out in her room during lunch and after school, I shrugged. I had kids around all the time, too.
However, I felt like kicking myself. I’d seen this particular student exiting my former colleague’s car on two different occasions. It’s against the rules to drive students anywhere. But I’d been informed, when I was going to report it that the administration already knew and was speaking with her about it. I was also furious. How could she place all of us in this vulnerable position?
Throughout the rest of the day, the story gained traction. Media crews were perched outside the school like crows, hoping to catch students, parents, and teachers on camera during dismissal. That evening, I was unpleasantly surprised to see two of my own students on the news. One of them had never even taken a class with her.
That’s the moment that I made some decisions. Twice before in my life, peers have committed shocking crimes; both are now in prison (one for life). I learned from them that a situation like this doesn’t go away overnight. Any new developments and, if it gets that far, a trial, can reignite media coverage, re-spark watercooler gossip, and fan fallout.
No matter what job you’re working in, when a colleague is accused of a crime, the alleged offense can become a rain cloud that pours down on the entire business and everyone associated with it. It’s not fair, but that’s reality.
If you find yourself in that situation, I know from experience that it’s imperative to gird yourself and guard those you care about. So protecting myself, my record, my students—and because I was in a position of responsibility, my entire department—became a priority.
The next day, I gave all my classes a brief lecture on manipulations of the media and the infinite length of the internet’s memory. The first rule of thumb, I told them, is not to give interviews to media. Your quote will be pulled out for online news stories, where your name will be forever connected to misconduct—sometimes without the nuance or context you intended. “I never had her as a teacher but she was always so nice to me when I passed her in the hallway” can be truncated into “She was always so nice to me.” I asked them: “Which one is more insinuating?”
Before long, I began to see people I knew posting articles about the incident on social media, along with their horrified, snarky, and sometimes smug comments. My sympathies lay entirely with the victim.
Still, I couldn’t help but want to defend my workplace. But I refrained. Any argument I engaged in would be unwinnable. And given the nature of the supposed transgressions, I absolutely did not want my views to be misconstrued, especially not in a public forum.
Even in personal communications, I was circumspect, because this is no longer a world where we can expect privacy. As my boss found that out the hard way when he sent a contentious email to a parent, assume everything will leak.
Whether or not someone chooses to remain friends with a colleague who’s been accused of a crime is a personal decision, of course, and also depends on the nature of the misdeed. Not all co-workers who’ve erred will be immediately fired. Not all will be arrested and booked in jail. Some will need your support.
I find empathy to be a standout trait. It doesn’t cost you anything but time or labor to listen, to help someone move to a less expensive apartment, or even to take care of pets while someone’s dealing with the justice system. Still, there’s a line. I’d be wary about lending anyone money for bail or legal fees, especially someone who’s no longer employed. Don’t volunteer or agree to be a character witness for the defense. Don’t offer a room in your home; you might find that they’ll never leave. In my case, my boss specifically warned all of us in a faculty meeting: We were to have no contact with the accused teacher. If we did and he found out, we’d be fired.
In the end, I only paid real attention to two things: court dates, which helped predict when we might expect another onslaught of negative attention, and my performance at work. It was difficult but imperative to continue a regular routine for me and for my students, especially those who felt betrayed by this woman. I allowed them a few minutes each day to express themselves, but eventually we’d get down to business. I also continued my regular administrative duties and kept up with my professional development.
Still, I prepared myself for another future as well. When an organization is continually discolored by one person’s scandal, the reality is that it might not recover. So I updated my resume. I consulted job listings. I sent out inquiries.
All the while, my colleagues and I carried on with our jobs, doing our utmost to ensure we were still following through on the mission that had attracted us there in the first place.
I probably won’t have to put my exit strategy in motion. But as I see crises unfold at different types of organizations every week, it reminds me that no matter what industry you’re in, disaster can strike at any time, for any reason. If you love your job or your company, it’s both painful and enraging to watch from the inside as one unfolds.
But there’s also opportunity during times of calamity. If you don’t allow your work ethic to flag and continue to offer your best to the people you work with, your efforts will be appreciated and could become watershed moments in your career.
In the end, how a colleague’s scandal affects you really depends on you.
Photo of person with their head down on their hands courtesy of Maskot/Getty Images.
Miami-based poet, freelance writer, dining critic, and educator Jen Karetnick is the author of 16 books, including The 500 Hidden Secrets of Miami (Luster, 2017). Her freelance work has appeared in TheAtlantic.com, GoodHousekeeping.com, Guernica, Miami Herald, Racked.com, Southern Living, Today.com, USA Today, and many other publications.More from this Author