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Legal and Moral Responsibilities of Teachers

  1. The TEACHERS' LOUNGE:
    Legal Issues Affecting Teachers
    ,

    including Suspected Child Abuse, Assault and Battery, Punishment, Sexual Harassment, Special Education, Slander and Libel, Supervision, and Search and Seizure

  2. EDUCATION LAW

  3. EDUCATION LAW: An Overview

  4. SEXUAL HARASSMENT AT SCHOOL


    ETHICAL CONCERNS

    Sexual Ethics and Your Students

    When you walk down the halls of your middle school or high school as a beginning teacher and you see relatively immature, even awkward young people, some clearly with one foot sti1l in childhood, you may wonder if I have lost my mind to even suggest that you, a teacher, could ever think of having an intimate relationship with one of your students. Even when you consider the more socially sophisticated, physically mature students you deal with, it may, early in your career, seem a sheer impossibility that you would ever think of any of them in a romantic or sexual fashion You may never fall in love with one of your students, but experience teaches that many of the ingredients for strong mutual attraction exist in the school. Working closely with students over a period of time, getting to know and like and trust them-and they you-your feelings about their availability and their a1tractiveness may undergo a marked shift.

    In a culture that deifies-and sexualizes-the young, it may become hard to remember that the attractive and often appealing students you teach are not your peers and are not available for socializing and/or romance. When you spend the bulk of your time interacting with young people, you may well find yourself in a position, mutual or not, of being strongly attracted to one of your students. This happens to male and female teachers of almost all ages, to those married and unmarried, and it is a serious ethical issue in our field.

    The heart has a mind of its own, and at some point in your career you may convince yourself that a relationship with one of your students is eminent1y justifiable. You may find yourself in a vulnerable time of your own life; the student in question may be troubled or confused or lonely or just really infatuated with you. There are numerous cases of students and teachers falling in love, having sexual relations, and even marrying. Some of these cases result in scandal and ruined careers and even criminal charges; some of them go on to happier and even permanently happy endings. I doubt there is a school system in this country where intimate teacher/student relationships have not occurred.

    The entire issue, nevertheless, is poisoned by the sheer inequality of the players. A student is never in an equal power relationship with a teacher, the latter of whom holds authori1y, standing and the weight of the grade. Further, in high school and middle school, students are almost always younger than their teachers, even their young teachers, and regardless of the number of years between the two groups, teachers are generally viewed as parental or older sibling figures.

    Using your power as a teacher, consciously or not, to further a sexual or romantic relationship with a student is wrong It preys on students' vulnerability and trust; it makes school just another place where a young person can be used or exploited Further-and very practically-most states have laws prohibiting sexual relations with minors, and almost all your students will fall into that legal category. In most states, the legal penalties can be severe: in most states, teaching contracts and even certification can be terminated for such behavior, generally lumped under the rubric "moral turpitude." In specific, touching and physical proximity are areas of concern. Often our students, male and female, will attempt close physical contact. Sometimes this is done from a sense of affection and care; sometimes it is done from a sense of curiosity and adventure. Certainly, also, some student-initiated physical contact is nothing more than an expression of veiled aggression. Regardless, you as a teacher must insist on maintaining appropriate physical space between yourself and any student. In addition, while any and all individual conferences with our students can be conducted out of earshot of others. They should never be conducted out of eyesight. Thus, meeting with a student in quiet corner of a public space-such as the media center, the school courtyard, or the cafeteria-is acceptable as is, of course, meeting with a student in a classroom with an open door. Conferencing with a student-either of the same or different gender-behind a closed door is asking for misinterpretation.

    While it is understandable, certainly in the beginning of your career, that you may feel more like a friend to your students than a teacher, you need to remember that you are now fulfilling a professional role and one that requires a necessary gulf between you and them. This is the nature of the business. Friends do not give friends grades or credit for work; friends do not reprimand friends or impose sanctions for disciplinary infractions. Teachers, though, do all of these with and for their students, and it is part of your new professional life.

    If this talk of professional distance seems abstract, there are a few specific behaviors you can practice in the classroom that may help to ensure a healthy distance between yourself and your students:

    • Minimize touching students and, when in conference, meet with them in public spaces and in view of others;
    • Decline to share with students details of your own past or present personal life, including dating, sexual practices, or romantic involvement;
    • Avoid in class what could be seen as flirtatious behavior and do not participate in sexually provocative conversations or jokes;
    • Adopt a dress that is more like the teaching staff than like the students;
    • Exhibit characteristics that are professional and adult and avoid excessive personal conversations in the classroom.

    Despite all of the cautionary nature of this discussion, however, this is not a plea for a return to some sort of puritanical past. All of us as human beings are endowed with a sexual identity. It is unrealistic to insist that you not appreciate the attractiveness of your students, that you be immune, as another human being, to their appealing natures. Our students are working on their sexual identities and practicing their personal charm, often in our classrooms and with us and their peers. We would be less than human if we did not respond, if we failed to appreciate in a very real sense their emergence as accomplished young men and women. But beyond that appreciation we must not go. Young people need to find romantic and sexual partners outside the teaching staff, and you as a teacher need to draw a line over which no one crosses. You are in a trusted position as a teacher, and violating that trust while the student is in your charge is serious and regrettable. Admiration from a certain distance is the more honorable path. Taking care not to give students the wrong signals about your relationship with them is essential.



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