THE BLOG

Why Student-Teacher Relationships Are Never OK

04/19/2012 09:22 am ET | Updated Jun 19, 2012

Too often when I see the word, "teacher" in a headline these days, it quickly is followed by the words, "sex scandal." Almost everyone would agree that teachers who become physically involved with their students are clearly in the wrong. Sex crimes are sex crimes, and they're (to quote Law and Order: SVU) particularly heinous against children. Teachers who sexually assault students generally get fired, sued, arrested, or some combination of the three. But more and more frequently I read or hear about teachers and students entering into inappropriate relationships that don't necessarily involve physical contact. What happens in these grey areas? When there is no actual assault, or even overt physical contact, but just flagrant intent? From what I've seen, these teachers get off scot-free, or with a minor slap on the wrist. This is extremely problematic.

As a teenage girl, I know just how often I feel like an adult. I believe that I can and do make many of my own mature decisions about sex and my sexuality. The reality is, however, that teenagers are often emotionally unstable. We are more psychologically akin to children, even though we are sexually developed. This helps explain why young girls are attracted to older men: adults simultaneously provide the promise of security and emotional safety, and the opportunity for a teenager to feel like an adult, sexually. So it should come as no surprise that adolescents develop crushes on their male and female teachers.

It does surprise me, however, that these teachers return the sentiments. I get it. Teenage girls are hot, and we are masters of flirting and teasing. So the logic goes, it would be unreasonable to expect a male teacher not to notice whether or not his students are attractive. But noticing is one thing; acting on their impulses in any way on the spectrum from flirting with a student to touching her is quite another.

There are protocols in place for students to report teachers who have committed crimes. I worry, however, about teachers who cross boundaries, but take advantage of the grey area between a casual student teacher relationship and a romantic one. Teachers who simply flirt with their students present an entirely different kind of threat than do traditional child molesters. Namely, they threaten the emotional and mental stability of teenagers who already have a plethora of stressors in their lives.

The last thing teenagers need to worry about, on top of social pressure, financial pressure, schoolwork, standardized tests, peer friendships and romance, and everything else that comes along with the tumultuous stage of adolescence, is being a source of romantic pleasure for their teachers.

With the advent of technology and online communication, teachers have perhaps never had more opportunities to foster relationships with their students outside of the classroom. Thanks to social networking, teachers can now communicate with their students through emails, texts and instant messages. Oftentimes, behind the safety of a screen, teachers forget their roles as mentors and figures of authority. Instead, they fall into the trap of talking to their students intimately as if they were romantic interests, and thus potential sex objects.
With just a screen and some charming language, in the privacy of their own homes, teachers might forget they are talking to confused, acne-plagued, shy teenagers from their classrooms. Perhaps they enjoy the distraction or attention or compliments they are receiving, becoming too easily seduced. Teachers seem to be finding themselves unable to separate their professions from their personal lives, a risk they should not be able to afford.

Allow me to state this explicitly: teachers who are unable to set boundaries with students have no place in the classroom. I don't care if he or she never touched, or even intended to touch a student. I don't care if she was asking for it. I don't care if he initiated it. The teacher has the responsibility as a figure of authority to end it before it begins, and to never propagate it.

As a country, we need to ensure that our schools have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment of any kind. Of course, there needs to be evidence. A teacher must have his or her, "day in court," so to speak. And most are obviously wonderful, moral and hard-working individuals. But we cannot gamble on our students' educations because we're unwilling to fire teachers who have acted inappropriately, on the bases that it's a "grey area."