Updated Nov. 17, 2013 with Courtroom Decision (end of article)
Norman Earl Hodge III, a teacher/coach at LaFayette High School and former LaFayette City Councilman, was arrested Friday February 1st for two charges of sexual assault by an authority figure, after allegedly sleeping with a student.
Hodge was arrested at the high school (one report says arrested at the central office), taken to Walker County Jail, and released on $5,000 bond. Several days later he resigned from his position at the school.
The student allegedly involved is over the age of legal consent, 17 years old, and willingly (some say eagerly) got into a relationship with the 42-year-old teacher – but Georgia law defines physical relationships between K-12 students and teachers of any age as sexual assault, regardless of consent or coercion.
(In 2010, Georgia’s legislature expanded the definition of sexual assault to include teacher-student relationships; before that point a loophole in the law allowed teachers to have sex with consenting students as long as they were 16 and older. This is the same section of law prohibiting jailers from sleeping with prisoners and doctors from sleeping with hospital patients.)
According to Walker County Sheriff’s Office, Hodge and the unnamed 17-year-old slept together twice during December, but (contrary to rumor) none of the sex happened at school. Per Sheriff Wilson, “The allegations are that the incidents happened on two separate occasions. They did not happen on school property and it did not happen during a school function.”
An official statement from Walker County Schools said the student herself complained about Hodge, resulting in “an immediate investigation .. following the current school system protocols.” Another report said a social services complaint was forwarded to the school, then to the Sheriff’s Office. However, comments made by the student on Facebook indicate she didn’t initiate the investigation, and several sources say a complaint came from her parents.
Regardless of where the investigation began, we now have a popular teacher and coach, who’s also a father and husband, son and namesake of a well-loved coach, role-model, church member, and former city leader, arrested for taking advantage of a student not much older than his own children. If accusations are true, it’s an embarrassment to all of us.
Hodge has worked for Walker County Schools in academic and athletic positions for over a decade. He was an assistant coach for Ramblers football and basketball before leaving in 2003 to coach Ridgeland Lady Panthers basketball, then returned to LHS a few years later to run the golf program.
Last year Hodge coached golf at LHS and was an assistant basketball coach for the Rambler Girls. At the time of his arrest, LHS’ staff directory listed Hodge as golf coach (the current season hasn’t begun yet) and remedial social studies teacher.
“Coach Hodge” previously served 2-1/2 terms as a LaFayette councilman, misrepresenting Ward 2 from January 2002 to November 2011. He stepped down mid-term after moving outside city limits; attorney Ben Bradford was elected in 2011 to fill the remainder of Hodge’s third four-year term.
While serving as councilman, Hodge’s main (and seemingly only) priority was building sports facilities. He pushed committing $1 million of SPLOST funds to recreational projects and made sure every bit of that amount was spent on the same; He promoted construction of a $1.4-million golf course clubhouse in 2008 and was the main advocate for LaFayette’s new $980,000 softball complex at Lowell Greene Rec.
Hodge was on the council during a period that could be considered a low point in city history; between 2002 and 2011 businesses fled town, infrastructure deteriorated, the city-owned football field on First Street practically collapsed, various employees were arrested, and former City Manager Johnnie Arnold abused and antagonized municipal workers unchecked. He wasn’t the only councilor during that time, but contributed mightily to the body’s negligence and inattention. Hodge also cast the tie-breaker vote for hiring Tommy Freeman, whose time as Police Chief was an absolute disaster.
Upon reflection, it seems like a majority of Hodge’s time in council meetings – at least during his last term – was spent talking about golf, talking about beer, or talking about golf with beer. (The one notable exception in LU meeting notes is from the night he devoted time to complaining about the quality of his child’s city rec. league photos before joining the mayor in laughing at a passionate proposal made by a dedicated citizen volunteer.)
The (now former) teacher was previously arrested in 2008, with two other coaches and another man, for smelling of alcohol at a football game in Dalton. Prosecutors later dropped the case after deciding there was a “lack of evidence” even though they reportedly admitted to the accusation. Georgia’s teacher accreditation panel decided the case had no merit, and none of the three school employees faced any discipline.
Despite his well publicized arrest, the people of LaFayette reelected Hodge to his City Council seat in 2009. Fortunately he resigned from that post long before last week’s arrest, else the city would have to clean up yet another embarrassment caused by an employee or public official. His post-arrest resignation from LHS is less helpful; his alleged crime further tarnishes the school system’s reputation and could result in lawsuits.
Of course this latest arrest doesn’t mean Hodge actually did what he’s accused of. Until his case is decided by a judge or jury, this is an alleged crime – and it’s not like teachers in Walker County have never before been falsely accused of sexually abusing students.
However, sex charges against Hodge aren’t universally surprising; a number of past and present students, along with a few parents, say they always felt uneasy with Hodge’s interest in female students – and several say his alleged teacher/student relationship was hardly a secret. If accusations end up being true, and students were aware of his sexual activity with a peer before the arrest, other educators also likely knew of it too. If school leaders had any idea what Hodge was doing and turned a blind eye, LaFayette High School could be in some serious trouble.
Would administrators have actually tolerated a teacher involved in a sexual relationship with a student? Hopefully not, but some suggest he’s hardly the first there to take that step. Depending on who you talk to, relationships between students and teachers (or students and past school resource officers) aren’t exactly a new concept at LHS.
Coaches, athletes, and those with the right last name tend to be above the rules at LaFayette High; remember, this is the same school where Principal Mike Culberson said seniors arrested for drug possession and charged as adults wouldn’t be kicked out of school (or off the team) because wrestlers deserve second chances. Considering Hodge’s respect in the community and success as a coach, it’s not a stretch to think school leaders who heard stories about his off-campus sex-ed classes ignored them until a formal report or police investigation made the issue unavoidable.
LHS administrators aren’t fully to blame, because the entire community tends to run the same way – bad behavior from government leaders and well-connected, respected individuals tends to be fully ignored until it goes out of control. In the last fifteen years we’ve seen example after example of unethical, sometimes criminal, activity left untouched until something explodes.
Non-criminal incidents include City Manager Arnold and Police Chief Freeman, both of whom mistreated employees for years until media attention on their behavior became impossible to ignore. Extreme criminal cases include alleged arsonist and former city employee Marvin Chase, the Marsh family, and ex-LPD officer Sam Parker. The kind of “hear no evil-see no evil” attitude that tolerated their abuses could very well have enabled Norm Hodge to engage in abuse himself, and likely contributed to an attitude of being above the law.
In fact, three years ago this very week then-Councilman Hodge was mentioned in an LU blog post entitled “Criminal Culture” which pointed out how ignoring minor crimes (like the alcohol arrests of Hodge and another councilman on a separate occasion) can lead to bigger issues such as the infamous ones, Parker and the Marshes, noted above. Sadly, the lengthy piece turned out to be more prophetic than anyone anticipated. Norm Hodge is certainly no Sam Parker, but they both seemingly benefitted for a time from the same lackadaisical attitude.
Our community is also lousy at punishing people once their deeds are found out. Former Walker County Sheriff’s Deputy Gaylon Redwine was himself accused of having sexual contact with an underage girl, the daughter of a fellow deputy. His crime wasn’t just abuse by an authority figure, it would have been outright statutory rape – if the Sheriff and District Attorney had pursued the case. Redwine was allowed to resign his position at WCSO, which kept his record clean and left doors open for him to work in law enforcement elsewhere. His gentle treatment showed just how serious we don’t take child sex abuse here in Walker County.
(Elected leaders who ignore abuses and give out wrist-slaps once misdeeds are uncovered also generally get a pass from constituents. Hiding behind incumbency, reputation, claimed religious faith, and make-believe lack of knowledge goes a long way with Walker County voters. If Hodge remained a LaFayette City Councilman he’d still have a pretty good chance of being reelected this fall even while facing sex charges. There’s a fine line between personal forgiveness and outright voter apathy; Walker County tends to end up on the wrong side of that line every single election year.)
If the two counts of sexual assault against Hodge make it to court and a judge or jury find him guilty, the former educator could spend between one and twenty-five years in jail or on probation. With probation he could also face a fine up to $100,000. Even if he takes a plea deal and gets the absolute minimum year of probation, he’ll have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
The 2010 law banning teacher/student sex has never been tested in court, so if Hodge is found guilty, his attorneys could appeal the measure as being unconstitutional. That would require a trip to Georgia Supreme Court and possibly even US Supreme Court, which turns into real time and money.
Regardless of what happens in court, Hodge’s teaching career is likely done. Publicity and attention surrounding the arrest make him a poor candidate for hire at another school, and even if he’s not convicted of a crime there’s a good chance his teaching license could be revoked. Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which certifies public school teachers, doesn’t take inappropriate behavior with students very lightly even if Hodge’s specific alleged actions are found not to violate criminal law. If a PSC Ethics Divison investigation finds he ever touched any student inappropriately, he’ll have to find another career.
A PSC ethics investigation into Hodge could also lead to an investigation into LaFayette High School and its leaders. If other teachers and administrators did know about this ahead of time, they might also face punishment or loss of teachers licenses – and deservedly so.
Criminal case and licensing investigation notwithstanding, Walker County Schools (and every school system) should review policies about student/teacher relationships. Not just regarding sex, but the way “peer facilitators” interact with school employees, the amount of time students can spend alone with teachers without additional adult supervision, and after-hours student contact with school employees.
School systems that allow teachers to friend students on Facebook and other social networks (as Norm Hodge did with the student involved here) should require a separation of teachers’ personal and professional accounts, with students banned from personal accounts and professional accounts left open for administrators to review. With sexting almost a given among some groups of teens, teachers should also be given guidelines about sharing phone numbers with students. Not just for student protection, but for their own liability.
It should go without saying (but apparently has to be said) – parents talk to your children (girls AND boys these days) about boundaries and relationships with authority figures. There’s always a chance that friendly teacher or coach has less than pure intentions; teens and even middle school kids should know how to respond and what to do if a person in authority (not just a teacher) says or does something inappropriate. Any child who’s been approached by an adult suggesting any kind of physical or romantic involvement (or who knows a child who has been) should report this to law enforcement, school leadership, or parents.
It’s time for LaFayette, from top down, to begin taking these kinds of incidents seriously. Not just sex abuse (which is certainly serious) but ALL illegal or unethical activity. This incident isn’t cute, it’s not funny, and it shouldn’t be glorified or glossed over.
Norm Hodge has been a role-model for many in the town for years, and his current alleged behavior is also being observed and likely to be copied. The kind of public response he gets from this, and the way he’s treated by the legal system (if found guilty) is also setting a standard for the future. Taking this seriously, treating Hodge the same way anyone else would be treated in the same situation, and handling the accusations in an appropriate way is the only way we can move forward without making things worse or encouraging more incidents like this in the future.
November 17 Update:
On November 4, Hodge pled guilty to having sex with the 17-year-old student on at least two occasions during 2012. Hodge could have faced 25 years in prison and a $100,000 fine, but was sentenced to only five years probation and $2,850 in fines and court fees. The case is now over.