Legal - The student-teacher relationship: how close is too close?
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 126 No 2, 12 March 2021, page no. 27
Legal claims and allegations regarding student-teacher relationships are becoming more common, and it seems the taboo (for both parties) has done little to stop career-ending instances for teachers.
Social media contributes to genuine confusion about the role teachers play in the personal and professional development of students and leaves an evidence trail that, no matter how innocent, can look sinister after an allegation has been made.
Teachers can serve as fantastic mentors for students during school and even years after graduation. Students can benefit from such mentoring academically, as well as socially and emotionally. It would be shame if these healthy relationships became a thing of the past, but in today’s world it is more vital than ever for teachers to establish and maintain clear boundaries with their students.
A 2020 decision involved a student who studied at a different high school to where the teacher taught, although both were Queensland state schools. The teacher and student commenced a relationship when the student attended taekwondo classes taught by the teacher at a private martial arts studio. Communication progressed to social media platforms including Facebook, where more than 15,000 private messages were sent, resulting in a sexual relationship commencing. The relationship was roughly three months in duration.
The teacher’s registration was cancelled. The tribunal found that, despite the absence of a direct teacher student relationship, the teacher still had the responsibility to maintain appropriate boundaries with anyone of school age.
Often these relationships commence in a relatively innocent way. A 2019 decision involved a student who was a friend of the teacher’s daughter. The student was frequently a guest in his house and would have sleepovers with the daughter. However, after the student finished school she would stay up late with him at these sleepovers watching movies, whereby topics of conversation became inappropriate.
A personal relationship commenced around 3-4 months after the student finished school. The tribunal found that the time that had elapsed since the end of school and the manner of development of the relationship did not overcome the imbalance of power between the teacher and student. The teacher’s registration was cancelled, and he was prohibited from re-applying for teacher registration for five years.
The Queensland College of Teachers has been testing the boundaries of how long must elapse between when the student graduates from school and the commencement of a relationship. In one case that demonstrates this, sexual conduct occurred between a teacher and former student nine months after the end of the professional relationship. This relationship was deemed inappropriate despite this lapse of time.
Ultimately, it is the pattern of these cases that there will always be a power imbalance between a student and a teacher, intensified by various factors such as age difference and any improper communication while the student was still at school.
It is important to maintain clear boundaries, and this is especially important when a student needs someone to rely on emotionally. In one example, a student disclosed to her teacher that she had been sexually abused by relatives growing up, and as most individuals would do, this teacher provided emotional support to the student. However, this support lasted several months and ultimately resulted in a romantic and sexual relationship. It was said that the teacher exploited the trust the student had placed in him, and as a result his registration was cancelled, and he was prohibited from applying for registration or permission to teach for six years. The existence of the student’s emotional difficulties was an aggravating feature.
Sexual conduct is not the only reason why teachers’ registration can be cancelled. In staying alert for sexual abuse, teachers need to be wary of “grooming”. This captures a wide range of conduct, including making comments on the appearance of students, contacting the student outside teaching hours and giving gifts.
At the end of the day, teachers need to remember that they are authority figure to students. There is a power imbalance regardless of whether the teacher is such a figure in an educational or sporting capacity, or even whether the teacher directly teaches the student.