Hard numbers are not easy to come by but there seems to be a troubling trend. The Center for Sex Offender Management is a project operated by the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2014 (the latest year for which data is available) there were nearly 800 prosecutions initiated nationwide for school employees engaging in sexual activity with students. One can safely assume a comparable, proportional number applies in Canada.
According to the same source, females are the perpetrators in 30 per cent of all cases. There exists some controversy over whether male or female teachers are treated differently by the justice system and if a double-standard is in play.
We shouldn’t allow that debate to obscure the fact that inappropriate sexual relationships between a student and a teacher – whatever their gender – demands a co-ordinated and systemic response, involving not only the criminal justice system but also school boards and teacher’s unions.
Certainly, it’s time school boards were held more accountable. Earlier this month, a lawsuit was filed in federal court in Florida against the Miami-Dade School Board which alleges it allowed accused teacher Jason Edward Meyers to remain employed in the district despite allegations made against him dating back as far as 2008. The suit alleges that Mr. Meyers had “sexually charged relationships” with at least eight of his current and former female students while employed in the school district.
In comments made to the Miami Herald, attorney Mark Schweikert said, “As alleged, the School Board knew that Mr. Meyers posed a serious risk of sexual abuse against our community’s children. Yet it did virtually nothing to stop him. Instead, the School Board merely relocated the risk posed by his predatory behaviour from one school to another.”
Turning a blind eye should be just as damning when one applies it to a school board as it was when the institution was the hierarchy of the Catholic Church – and we all know how condemnation rained down from all corners of society in those cases.
It begs the question why would school boards be so reluctant to act? Well, putting aside the fear of expensive civil liability, one must also include powerful teacher’s unions as a culprit whose vocal and vociferous support of all teachers results in unintended facilitation for predators included under that umbrella.
That is what is just now occurring in Massachusetts where a proposed state law outlawing teacher-student sex has yet to be endorsed by the teacher’s union of that state.
The bill would prohibit sexual relations between teachers and students 19 years of age or younger. By choosing that age as the high-water mark, the bill seeks to effectively cover every student who could conceivably be in a high school setting regardless of the statutory age of sexual consent.
The reluctance on the part of the union to swiftly endorse this bill is short-sighted and only serves to complicate what should be a clear-cut condemnation of this type of activity on the part of educators.
This is an area where the Canadian system of justice is vastly superior to that which exists in many jurisdictions in the United States – hampered as they are by a state-by-state approach. The Criminal Code of Canada recognizes that – even if a young person has reached the age of legal consent to sexual activity – a special relationship of trust and dependence can result in sexual exploitation where the adult in control manipulates the student into a sexual relationship.
Not so in Alabama. On Friday, a Morgan County Circuit judge found that state’s law prohibiting sex between a student and school employees to be unconstitutional. Since the age of consent in Alabama is 16, the judge ruled that a law treating school employees differently from the general population is a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.
There can be no ‘relationship’ and no meaningful ‘consent’ when one person uses their position of power to influence, groom and coerce a subservient individual into gratifying their physical or emotional needs.
Everyone recognizes that most teachers are professionals who deserve any apple offered to them from a grateful student.
Let’s just make sure that’s all they’re getting.
Gavin MacFadyen is a Canada-raised, U.S.-based writer and occasional lawyer.