I was absolutely shocked to find the high number of incidents reported just in the first three months of 2016. The State of Texas Department of Education conducted a study, and reported a 27% increase from 2009 (141) to 2014 (179) of incidents of teachers involved in an inappropriate relationship with a student under the age of 18. According to a 2012 news article, a study conducted by the American Association of University Women revealed that one in ten students currently enrolled in American schools may have been impacted in some form of sexual abuse, including sexual touch; this means that 4.5 million students are affected. Can this be true? Has this always been or is society’s fading morality poring over more frequently into the noble relationship of trust between teacher and student?
I decided to query to some of my friends who are teachers in different states, grade levels, and subject areas to get their take on this uncomfortable, sad situation. I posed the following 3 questions to them.
1.Have you, either as a student or as a teacher, seen an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and student?
2.What do you feel leads to this situation?
3.Do you feel that it is worse for a male to abuse a student or a female? Why or why not?
Of the 40 teachers surveyed, I was again surprised to find most (37) knew personally of a situation such as this during their career. One high school teacher described a relationship that began with the female as a freshman and the teacher fresh from college, which resulted in a wedding upon her graduation. They are still married and are both teachers now. When asked, he agreed that he viewed this as a breach of ethics, but was not terribly concerned since they did end up in a committed relationship.
Many factors were discussed regarding causation, but the most commonly mentioned was poor boundaries on the part of the adult. Many of the teachers described the importance of a relationship between teacher and student as necessary for learning to take place. However, they went on to describe how this relationship could be misconstrued or taken advantage of by one or both parties. Add in other factors such as social media access, cell phones, and texting, another issue becomes clear; that is, there is often interaction with a lack of accountability or even secrecy. As new teachers, were always advised never to close the classroom door when tutoring or counseling a student; yet today, teachers can have private conversations through FaceBook or email, can share photos privately, and often choose to do so.
A teacher described a high school student who would stop by to talk to her when she was in her first year. He was going through a tough time and she felt her place was to comfort him. He began asking for hugs, but when other students reported to her that he had a “crush” on her, she shut him down. She explained that she could see how a teacher in her position who was lonely or dissatisfied with her life might have responded differently or inappropriately in that same situation. Fortunately, she had strong boundaries and enforced them when she realized the dilemma.
Another teacher described two situations that she experienced as a high school student. In the first case, a male teacher was arrested for having a sexual relationship with multiple members of the girl’s sports team. This teacher was married with a child. While she was not on the team, she was a student in his class. He had invited her several times to bring her lunch to his classroom and eat with him, but she was too shy to do so. She also stated that another male teacher, who sponsored a popular club, had relations with students for over ten years, never getting caught. In fact, he was known to brag to students and other teachers about the couch in his office. While this is disgusting to consider, the club was highly sought after for membership and he exploited this fact through relationships.
The third question created the most dissonance in the responses. The older faculty consulted felt that male offenders were more to blame and female students were more likely true victims. However, according to administrator Craig Rapinchuk, “in the case of abuse, male or female doesn’t matter, because abuse is the issue, not the gender of the abuser.” One male teacher quipped, “where were those female teachers when we were in school?” A professor interviewed wrote to me, “I think it’s more abusive if it’s a man because of the physical strength of men (in general) and the emotional attachments that young women may more easily succumb to.” Because the answers to this question were so different, I looked to the literature and found an interesting study of perceptions. The study, conducted by Fromuth et al (2016), found that the response by participants to a male teacher/female student scenario was harsher than when a female teacher abused a male student. There was also less malice towards a relationship that became committed, rather than lasting for a short time.
Recall the trial of Debra Lafave in Hillsborough County, Fl., her attorney was quoted as saying, “she is too pretty for prison.” While ultimately she received a plea bargain due to the mental anguish caused to her victim and the need for anonymity due to his age, I wonder if this same grace would have been granted to a male offender or a female described as less attractive. For myself, I would have to say that abuse is never acceptable, no matter the gender, the age, the situation, the commitment that results, nor any other factor. As a teacher of students with special needs, I can clearly see the vulnerabilities of my students, but in all honestly, aren’t all students vulnerable to an adult with bad intentions?
So as teachers, how do we avoid the appearance of inappropriate interactions? My advice is this:
-Encourage strong boundaries in your relationships. Be clear about your intentions and never allow a line to be crossed.
-Never put yourself in a situation that you know is wrong.
-Keep your door open when at all possible.
-Avoid private interactions via the Internet or cell phone.
-Remember the sacred trust of the teacher-student relationship.
Fetcher, Joshua. (Oct 29, 2014). 27% increase of inappropriate student-teacher relationship investigations in Texas. http://www.mysanantonio.com/news/local/article/TEA-Uptick-in-inappropriate-student-teacher-5853916.php
Fromuth, M., Kelly, D., Brallier, C., Williams, M., & Benson, K. (2016). Effects of Duration on Perceptions of Teacher Sexual Misconduct. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 25:2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26934542
Palmer, Brian. (Feb. 8, 2012). How Many Kids Are Sexually Abused by Their Teachers? Probably millions. http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2012/02/is_sexual_abuse_in_schools_very_common_.html
Phillips, A. (Oct. 16, 2014). Florida Supreme Court rules in favor of Debra Lafave. http://www.tampabay.com/news/courts/criminal/florida-supreme-court-rules-in-favor-of-debra-lafave/2202400