From coast to coast, parents, colleagues and former teaching peers and students have deemed New Milford High School social studies teacher Stephen Flanagan's paid suspension this week a grave injustice.

Many fear his reputation has been tainted by a gross misinterpretation of his long-standing respect and devotion to students.

Mr. Flanagan, a 26-year high school veteran who teaches AP history and other related courses, this week was placed on administrative leave after a staff member filed a formal sexual and other harassment complaint against him, based on his absence from two meetings in order to meet with a student.

For confidentiality purposes, much of the complaint narrative, including what was observed, is blacked out to protect the identify of the student or students.

Superintendent of Schools JeanAnn Paddyfote said the matter is under investigation and she could not elaborate on any details, including whether or not this relates to one or more students, or if they are male or female.

The staff member who filed the complaint has also not been identified.

Wendy Faulenbach, the chairwoman of the Board of Education, said district officials are charged with such investigations, and the board must "honor and respect the integrity of the process, and see where that takes us.''

The matter will be referred to the board only if disciplinary action were to be taken, and should the teacher opt for a board hearing.

"I hope the investigation finds its own solution,'' Ms. Faulenbach said.

Mr. Flanagan has not been able to be reached for comment.

On Facebook, a page has been created to support Mr. Flanagan.

A petition has been created and signed by hundreds to ask the Board of Education to reinstate him.

Students all week have been posting comments on Twitter and Facebook about their affection and respect for his teaching and willingness to go the extra mile for students.

"We're just devastated,'' said Jennifer Lawson, 19, a Syracuse University student who graduated in 2010 and often met with Mr. Flanagan, her class advisor, about school and personal issues.

"I think niceness is being turned into a crime,'' she said.

Ms. Lawson's father, David, is a member of the Board of Education.

Angela Chastain, a parent and PTO leader whose eldest son is now enrolled in Mr. Flanagan's AP history class, said Mr. Flanagan is "hugely popular'' with students and she hated to hear this news.

She said she is unaware of what occurred, but hopes the administration tends to the matter as quickly as possible.

"I just hope it's not true,'' said another parent, Lisa Terlizzi. "He seems like he is so there for the kids. I hate to see someone's reputation ruined by such an accusation. But if it's true, we need to know that.

"For the sake of the students,' she added, "I hope (the administration) does what they have to do and does not drag this out.''

NMHS social studies colleague Wisdom Jarvis said Friday the reality is that teachers walk a tightrope.

They are encouraged to be caring and sensitive to student needs in and out of the classroom, he said, yet are instructed to do so without physical contact -- handshakes only.

As for Mr. Flanagan, Mr. Jarvis said he has never observed any questionable conduct with students.

"In my experience, I have never seen him have anything but the upmost respect for the well-being of students,'' Mr. Jarvis said.

Retired colleague Brock Putnam said he finds it puzzling someone would complain because a fellow teacher missed a faculty meeting, and was late for a second, to meet with a student.

In his two decades at the high school, Mr. Putnam said, he attended many such meetings and found they were often "contrived to create death through boredom.''

"As a colleague, (Mr. Flanagan) was one of the great, outstanding teachers out there, somebody who always was going the extra mile or two for students,'' Mr. Putnam said.

Mr. Putnam said he is dismayed the administration may be attempting to "marginalize'' a teacher with "unquestionable integrity.''

"My heart goes out to Steve," said Mr. Putnam. "He's a great, gracious gentleman.'

"In my experience, I have never seen Stephen Flanagan have anything but the upmost respect for the well-being of students.''

Wisdom Jarvis

NMHS social studies teacher