- Education and Science
Students and Teachers: Inappropriate Relationships
Student Teacher Relationships and Professional Boundaries: When Teachers Cross the Line...
There is a current and disturbing trend in America today, and it involves inappropriate relationships that develop between teachers and their students. While the majority of teachers deeply respect their position in the field of education and understand how to keep from crossing the professional line that separates them from their students, there are a few teachers that blur that line. When these teachers, as school board president Bill Flickinger (Boccella, 2009) aptly puts, “stray into forbidden territory,” they cause untold damage to the student, the student’s family, the school and the community as a whole, not to mention their own careers. Why is this happening and can it be prevented? I think that by examining these inappropriate relationships, hopefully we can understand how to keep them from happening. The following is my look at four news stories about recent cases, and is the first part in a two part consideration of how these inappropriate relationships develop and how they can be prevented. I do give the article sources, so that the reader can conduct a much deeper analysis if desired, as I do not have the room here.
The first case is from a 2009 edition of The Philadelphia Inquirer, which describes a perplexing cluster of inappropriate student-teacher relationships in the storybook town of Lititz, PA, also considered by some to be Pennsylvania’s bible belt. In a statement, Flickinger lamented, “I don’t get it… Young people are throwing their lives and careers away. They’re just not thinking” (Boccella, 2009). Understandably, many in the community are calling it a betrayal of trust and are asking for an investigation of all student-teacher romance rumors as well as more staff training. The second article is from a 2010 edition of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (Shah, 2010), which discusses the use of Facebook as a venue for teachers and students to connect, including the positive and negative aspects of this use. This article examines the reality of social media while warning against its casual use by teachers to relate to students. Surely, the casual attitude towards social media is a heavily contributing factor in the development of inappropriate student teacher relationships. It seems that for many teachers, social media has become the slippery slope from authority to “friend,” thereby becoming a springboard for the erosion of professional integrity. The article looks at ways that some districts and schools are handling the use of social media by students and teachers in order to safeguard everyone. Another case is from a 2010 edition of Virginia’s The Roanoke Times (Mallory, 2010). This article describes the relationship between a female high school English teacher, Diana Canter, and a then 17 year old male student, Josh Ferrier. The relationship started with a friendship, instigated by Canter, through text messaging. According to Ferrier, Canter was “going through a lot,” and needed an ear. My question is, where were Cantor’s adult friends? Why did she feel the need to unburden her troubles onto a 17 year old student? Ferrier was close friends with several other teachers, and when school administrators found out about the friendship they called the couple in, telling them to “be careful,” but not asking any deeper questions regarding their friendship. Surprisingly, the school had already dealt with a teacher-student sex scandal, so this should have raised a red flag. Ironically, Canter received much support from former students as well as a church fundraiser, while Ferrier was left dealing with an attempted suicide, guilt and family estrangement. Now in therapy, he claims that society has a double standard: had he been female, and Canter a male, the school would have investigated more thoroughly. Unfortunately, he has a valid point; I think we tend to be harsher on male perpetrators than we are on female, especially when the victim is almost of age. A fourth case, from the Oregon Mail Tribune (Burke, 2010), is especially disturbing because it involves a male elementary teacher and multiple female students. Christopher Gilman admitted to inappropriate physical contact of girls in his class; something he was previously disciplined for at another school. This included sitting on his lap, tickling, touching their legs and patting them on the buttocks. He was supposed to have been in therapy, providing mandated updates to the authorities, but it is not known if he complied or if he will be allowed to work with children again. I want to know: Why on earth was he allowed back into the classroom after the first offense?
These events are very saddening, and cast a dark shadow onto a noble profession, whose members are held to a higher standard, or at least should be. Unfortunately, these are just a small sampling of the many cases across the country of teachers crossing the bridge between appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and we seem to hear about a new case weekly. Not only is an inappropriate student teacher relationship absolutely immoral and unethical, but in many cases, also a crime. I think that by following current trends and comparing them to psychological data, plans for preventing the development of inappropriate relationships can be implemented. Districts and communities must be willing to exert the effort necessary for monitoring teachers’ behaviors as well as teacher training. Part of this training is making teachers realize their humanity and facing it head on, which include taking steps to safeguard themselves, their students, their school and their community. Schools also need to take their heads out of the sand and recognize the signs of these inappropriate relationships. I am not saying that we should start a witch hunt in response to every rumor or whisper, but we should help monitor each other and our students, being willing to speak up if we see or hear something out of line. Clearly, it’s not enough to tell teachers, “Don’t have sex with your students.” Additionally, it is ludicrous that it would need to be said. For the record, I do think that nearly every teacher who crosses that line is a good person, and if given a second chance, would handle the situation differently. Look for part two of this article, where I provide a suggested code of conduct that can help prevent these errors in judgment.
Boccella, K. (2009, May 24). Inappropriate student-teacher relationships in Lititz. Philadelphia Inquirer, The (PA). Retrieved from EBSCOhost..
Burke, A. (2010, February 19). Howard Elementary teacher was previously disciplined. Mail Tribune (Medford, OR). Retrieved from EBSCOhost..
Mallory, A. L. (2010, August 4). Teen describes relationship with teacher: Josh Ferrier was 17, he said, when he became sexually involved with Christiansburg High School teacher Diana Canter. Roanoke Times, The (VA). Retrieved from EBSCOhost..
Shah, A. (2010, May 14). Why can't we be Facebook friends?: Facebook has blurred the lines between teachers and students, forcing districts to grapple with what's appropriate online. Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN). Retrieved from EBSCOhost..