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The 2019-20 school year was unprecedented in our nation’s history. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, many states issued health orders, which had the result of students learning remotely. For the first time ever, most classes were conducted almost exclusively online, beginning in mid-March 2020. Some teachers had the burden of teaching online when they had not done this previously, and others had to teach students both in the classroom and online. It was a stressful time for a profession that is already one of the top 10 stressful jobs.
Teachers did a yeoman’s job during the pandemic. They adjusted to these less-than-ideal circumstances without missing a beat, and they are to be commended. However, during this period, there were some teachers who had inappropriate relationships with students. This article is about those relationships and how to prevent them.
How inappropriate relationships between teachers and students develop has evolved over the years. In the past, the relationships typically arose under circumstances where a teacher had time alone with students away from campus. However, with the advent of smartphones and social media, teachers and students can have private conversations. Some apps, such as Snapchat, even delete the messages after they have been read, thus creating a false sense of security that the conversation will not be discovered.
Texting, sending messages through Snapchat, Facebook Messenger, and other apps, as well as “friending” students on Facebook has long been believed to be the gateway for creating an environment where inappropriate relationships can flourish. Conversing with students in this manner creates an environment of intimacy through the private nature of the communications and the immediacy of the exchange.
The conversations follow a typical pattern: They begin with discussions about issues at school. Then the educator shares more about their private life, thus creating a false sense of being peers and creating intimacy. Either from the beginning or during the conversations, the language becomes more flirtatious. Boundaries are tested and pushed further. Sometimes the teacher asks for a picture of the student in provocative attire or poses. Eventually, the conversation turns to meeting in person. Actual sexual contact may follow.
The pandemic demonstrated that this is, in fact, how these relationships begin and flourish. During that time, inappropriate relationships did not stop, although students and teachers were not meeting in person. There was even a bump where they increased. The reason is that during the pandemic, teachers relied upon Facebook, texting, and apps to communicate with students regarding schoolwork.
Knowing that the method of communication is key to how these relationships are formed, school systems can put into place policies that prevent it from occurring in the future. For example, a policy can be implemented that district-owned laptops and other devices are not to be used for personal communications and certainly not for inappropriate interactions with students. Also, it should include that there is no expectation of privacy for these devices and that they must be surrendered for inspection at any time. The consequences for violation of these policies should be set out as well.
Another takeaway is to have policies about the types of communications that are permissible for the school system and to have recommendations for apps that can be used for them. An example is to require that all communications with students must be via school-issued equipment, using school-sanctioned email or apps, such as Remind. Policies also should prohibit school personnel from “friending” students on social media. Additionally, states should consider having an educator code of conduct that sets out expectations for conduct—the clearer, the better.
When there are violations, employment action should be taken. Bear in mind that educators with pending criminal charges against them may move to invoke their Fifth Amendment right and ask for a stay of the employment case pending the outcome of the criminal case.
What are the consequences for failing to take these preventative steps? The most obvious is that students will continue to have their lives ruined, and educators will continue to suffer employment loss—and potentially jail time. In states where sexual relationships between educators and students have been criminalized, sentences usually range from approximately two years to just over 10 years. Depending on the conviction, the educator may also have to register as a sex offender.
A consequence for the school system is a Title IX lawsuit. A school employee engaging in a sexual relationship with a student would logically have liability under this law. A school system also may have liability if it had actual knowledge of the misconduct and was deliberately indifferent, e.g., by failing to take any action to prevent such occurrences in the future. To demonstrate that the system is not being deliberately indifferent, conduct training with staff and students on grooming behaviors, such as favoring certain students with special privileges or gifts, communicating excessively through texting or social media, discussing personal problems with the student as if they were an adult, invading the student’s personal space, engaging in “sex talk,” showing pornography, or engaging in affectionate physical contact
Train staff to be transparent and have administrators make surprise visits to classrooms. Ensure that reporting procedures are clearly understood—both for reporting questionable conduct and for reporting to law enforcement when abuse is suspected.
Following these preventative steps and raising awareness at your schools of these issues can help to reduce occurrences of inappropriate teacher/student relationships.
Susan Tudor Crowther (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate general counsel and assistant attorney general in the Office of General Counsel of the Alabama Department of Education.