Legal: Intimacy with students
Queensland Teachers' Journal, Vol 123 No 7, 5 October 2018, page no. 27
The Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal has little sympathy for teachers who commence sexual relationships with students and former students.
“Queensland College of Teachers v JNS  QCAT 228” provides a textbook illustration of why codes of conduct within the teaching profession specifically address inappropriate relationships.
There are plenty of cases that have made the point that teacher-student relationships are totally inappropriate, and that serious consequences will follow for the teacher and his or her career. The Education (Queensland College of Teachers) Act 2005 (the act) sets clear expectations of teachers when it comes to professional boundaries between students and their educators.
The principle seems obvious, but teachers still periodically find themselves in trouble. This case sounds a sober warning, not only against commencing relationships with students and former students, but about the inherent danger in showing favouritism to a student or spending time alone with a student, whether the teacher’s intentions are innocent or otherwise.
JNS was a young female teacher in her early 20s when she began to show favouritism towards a particular student at the high school where she was employed. The student, also a female, was in year 10. The student was also subject to a long-term guardianship order which placed her in foster care, and adds a special vulnerability to the case.
A number of concerns about JNS’s behaviour were raised with her employer, including being seen alone with the student after school, having contact outside of school, giving the student gifts, and exchanging emails of a personal nature. The teacher was warned about spending time alone with the student, but the behaviour continued. Following the student’s graduation from year 12, the student moved into the teacher’s parents’ family home. The teacher also later moved back in with her parents.
The Queensland College of Teachers suspended JNS’s registration, and later brought a disciplinary matter against JNS before the tribunal.
The tribunal had to consider whether JNS met the standard of behaviour generally expected of a teacher, and concluded that she did not. It held that the teacher failed to maintain professional boundaries for the final two years of the student’s schooling, and that the evidence pointed “compellingly” to a romantic relationship between the teacher and former student, despite the teacher’s denials. The tribunal was convinced from the evidence that a sexual relationship existed, even though when it commenced could not be established exactly. Giving the teacher the benefit of the doubt, the tribunal estimated it began approximately six weeks after the student graduated from year 12.
A serious sanction was warranted in this case. JNS’s conduct was treated more seriously than a previous case (“Queensland College of Teachers v Derbyshire  QCAT 536”), due to JNS’s exploitation of a vulnerable student, the fostering of a relationship over almost two years when the student was only 15 and 16, and that JNS did not demonstrate insight and remorse. The teacher’s false denial and lack of admissions were noted.
The tribunal cancelled JNS’s registration (though it had already lapsed) and ordered that JNS not be eligible to reapply for registration for five years (until 2022). Should she reapply, evidence from a psychologist or psychiatrist must be submitted with the application.
JNS’s case is the kind of situation every teacher thinks they will never face, but when good rapport with students gets a bit too casual or friendly, there is a high risk of allegations being made, whether justified or not.
The salient lessons from JNS are worth contemplation.
- The standard expected is high.
- When a teacher doesn’t heed warnings about the closeness of a relationship with a student, other warning bells should start ringing.
- Favouritism is never a good idea.
- What is kept hidden is likely to be uncovered.
- Significant time must elapse after student leaves school before a relationship with a former teacher commences, and what “significant time” means is open to interpretation and dependent on the circumstances of the case (“Queensland College of Teachers v A Teacher  QCAT 225”).
For more on this case, visit https://archive.sclqld.org.au/qjudgment/2018/QCAT18-228.pdf
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