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Don’t Stand So Close to Me: School Abuse, Part 1

By August 16, 2018August 21st, 2018No Comments

There are some songs that I just can’t listen to anymore. Baby, It’s Cold Outside at Christmastime. And Sting’s Don’t Stand So Close to Me about school abuse. (Really, is that a bathrobe he’s wearing?!)

Since it’s not snowing outside, and it is back to school season, let’s take a closer look at Don’t Stand So Close to Me. In the 80s, when the song came out, we would have described this song as being about a schoolgirl and her teacher “having an affair.” Reality, then and now, is that he’s twice her age – she’s underage – and now that’s school abuse and rape.

Oklahoma law declares it so. 21 O.S. § 1111 provides that it is rape:

where the victim is at least sixteen (16) years of age and is less than twenty (20) years of age and is a student, or under the legal custody or supervision of any public or private elementary or secondary school, junior high or high school, or public vocational school, and engages in sexual intercourse with a person who is eighteen (18) years of age or older and is an employee of the same school system.

This became the law around 2001. Before then, back in the ’80s, sex between a teacher and student was not defined as rape. The rationale back then was that a 16 year old girl was capable of consenting and if she wanted to have an affair with her teacher that was a scandal, but not a crime. So what changed?

Two things really. First, Title IX was adopted in 1972. One provision of Title IX deals with sexual harassment and sexual violence. At first, the statute was used to address these issues on college campuses. But lawyers representing victims pushed to expand it to K-12, and it has been.  School abuse became a civil rights violation. So federal law helped.

The second thing that helped was coming to terms with the real effect school abuse, a teacher-student sexual relationship, has on the student. A teacher and a student are not “equals.” Because of this there cannot be true consent because there is a disparity in power between the people involved. These students are not fully mature and do not have the capacity to understand an adult level relationship, especially one that even adults would have a hard time reconciling because of the power imbalances.  Students are usually not capable of recognizing school abuse at the time – they may recognize that what is happening is “wrong” but they do not realize the full extent of the harm that is created. When the student figures that out, often much later in life, they then have to wonder why no one protected them. The situation creates real issues about trust, faulty relationship-building, and other problems. The harm from these events is long-term. And it can seriously jeopardize a student’s educational potential among other things.

While Nabokov’s Lolita, which focuses on a young woman, might have been Sting’s reference, female teachers have also sexually abused boy students. Such relationships are just as damaging as the male teacher/female student variety. And for the same reasons – male students are also at an age of learning about relationships and trust and teacher abuse stunts that development.

These abusive relationships between teachers and students have probably been around since before Socrates, but they do seem to be more frequent now. Part of that, of course, is confirmation bias – we see news stories all the time about teachers abusing and so it feels like it happens all the time. But, there is actually an increase in the frequency of these events. At least part of the blame for that can be attributed to social media and text messaging. Before cell phones, a teacher would have to get a student into a private situation to have a private talk. You know, “Oh, Jenny, could you stay after class?” Wink, wink, nudge, nudge. Now, that same teacher can have a “private chat” via Snapchat or the app de jour. The vast majority of teenagers (88%) have access to a cell phone. So there is plenty of opportunity for unsupervised communication. I see the text messages and other app-communication in many of our cases. It becomes wearingly repetitive – predator “tests the water,” starts forming the boundaries of a relationship, pushes the power the predator holds, manipulates the victim, and keeps it going until they are caught or move on to another victim.

While it has perhaps become “easier” for the abuser because of technology, society’s tolerance for this type of abuse is a lot lower than it used to be. Instead of “strong words in the staff room,” these days a parent or another teacher can pick up the phone and call the DHS Hotline (1-800-522-3511). Schools that tolerate abuse will find themselves on the receiving end of a lawsuit. So they are more motivated now than they used to be to prevent abuse and to properly react to it when it happens.  It is still the case that this does not always happen, but progress is being made.

If you have questions about teacher-student abuse – at any grade level – we are happy to answer those questions at no cost to you. Contact Koller Trial Law.