New reports seem to come at us on an almost daily basis – yet another teacher is being accused of having sex with a student (who is also under the age of consent). Based on reports from across the country, the numbers seem staggering. According to Professor Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University, author of the report “Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Synthesis of Existing Literature,” an estimated 4.5 million American students have been subjected to some kind of sexual misconduct (ranging from verbal abuse to actual sexual contact) between Kindergarten and 12th grade.
As an educator and parent, I am shocked and disturbed by these numbers; how can this be happening in our schools? The seeming epidemic of cases of educator sexual abuse of students is an ongoing tragedy for our country, ruining the lives of so many children.
There is obviously something inherently wrong with our education system, but it goes even deeper than that – college and graduate school courses for future teachers are saliently deficient since some new teachers are obviously coming out of teacher preparation programs totally unaware that this kind of behavior is wrong. Something has to be done to alter the pattern because it has been going on far too long now.
If we recall one of the most famous cases of teacher sexual abuse from 20 years ago – teacher Mary Kay Letourneau (34 at the time) and her 13-year-old student Vili Fualaau – the media sensationalized the case and invariably painted Mary Kay as a “victim” of falling in love with the boy (who fathered two children with her). Mary Kay became something of a celebrity by writing a book – Only One Crime, Love – and having a movie made about her life – All-American Girl: The Mary Kay Letourneau Story.
Incredulously, this sordid tale is a microcosm of the forbidden love aspect of teacher-student relationships. Instead of recognizing the horrendous and unforgivable behavior of someone who is supposed to be a professional acting in a totally unprofessional manner, the angle is always to show the sensational and lurid aspects of these incidents and cite the fact that teacher and student truly love one another as if it should temper our reaction to what happened.
Now with social media we can get a steady stream of these stories anytime we want, with graphic details of how teacher and student copulated in cars, in classrooms, and so on. There is a subtle permissiveness that sneaks into these stories because it seems to be suggested that two things are usually at work here: the teacher couldn’t control his or her desires and the student was complicit in the situation and therefore this somehow negates the teacher’s culpability.
Popular culture only adds salt to the wounds concerning this matter. Think of all the TV shows, films, and music videos that suggest that teacher-student sexual attraction is somehow part of a normal school experience. Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher” is an excellent example of this glorification of the inappropriate behavior of educators and the joys of being the student who got “lucky” with the object of other students’ affection.
Going back to Miss Crabtree in The Little Rascals and probably well beyond, students have had feelings about their teachers. It is understandable that students look up their teachers, admire them, and maybe even have some affection for them. Young children especially feel bonds to their teachers because they become surrogate parents during the school day, but no matter how the student feels it is the teacher who is the professional. It is the teacher who must set appropriate boundaries and enforce them.
During the school day the concept of in loco parentis is in place in a school building. This means that every person in that building from the janitor to the principal has the legal responsibility to care for the students “in place of the parents” who are not present. This is a monumental and sacred trust that educators must adhere to, and this seeming epidemic of teachers having affairs with their students is not only breaking the law but violating that sacred trust.
It is time for school districts across the country to provide training about professional and personal conduct. There must be a clear delineation of boundaries for educators. They should also be taught to be front line advocates for children, learning how to recognize when a colleague is about to step over the line or is doing so. One of the strongest methods of stopping this epidemic is to have teachers and administrators become fluent in advocacy for students’ safety and well being, hopefully preventing violators before they can act.
Having been a teacher and a school administrator, over the years I have seen so many fine men and women who become educators for all the right reasons. They go into the field with aspirations to make a difference in their students’ lives, and that has always inspired me. Still, no one can ignore what is happening in schools across America and something has to be done about it – not tomorrow or next week or month but right now.
The best way to approach this situation is to think of consequences. Teachers who are guilty of these reprehensible actions will lose their licenses, destroy their own families, and go to prison for years. Unfortunately, the consequences for the students are even more daunting.
Students who become sexually involved with their teachers are victims and they face trauma that is enduring and overwhelming. Even in cases where the student may have willingly participated or even initiated the affair, the student is a minor and incapable of emotionally understanding the ramifications of his or her actions. Consequences for the student may be incalculable initially and devastating over many years to come.
Something has to change and it has to happen sooner rather than later. Teachers need to know that they are expected to always act in a professional manner – which means not sharing cell phone numbers, not being friends with the student through social media, and not exchanging personal email because all of those actions are steps down a lurid road of no return.
Teachers play an awesome and crucial role in the lives of children and must remember the golden rule of in loco parentis – during that school day teachers are acting as parents would and not as friends or paramours. There are boundaries and they must be upheld and honored because their professional responsibilities must outweigh any personal issues or desires.
We owe it to the children of this country to find answers quickly and protect them. School districts, educators, and parents must all come together and work to find an antidote to this sordid epidemic, which is an American tragedy that is destroying lives, and the time to act is now.