Do we take seriously the mental health consequences to students as a result of sexual relationships with teachers?

What drives teachers to pursue sexual relationships with students? 

In a new AJC investigation, my colleague Ty Tagami found that while Georgia teachers who engage in sexual relationships with students lose their jobs, few face prosecution.

Tagami’s story began: 

On a Friday morning in 2012, a couple of hours past midnight, an East Georgia mom heard a noise from her daughter’s bedroom. What she discovered in the 18-year-old’s closet would disturb any parent: a naked man.

“You’re the coach,” the stunned woman yelped. Her daughter had graduated from high school the month before. The man, who had been her basketball coach, ran from the house without his clothes.

That anecdote is from one of about 200 state investigations that resulted in teachers losing teaching licenses from 2011 to 2016. The case files don’t identify the students but do contain enough detail to conclude the bulk of them were in high school, many 16 or older, the age of consent in Georgia.

The investigations, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from the Georgia Professional Standards Commission using the state Open Records Act, cost the teachers their careers. But many were not prosecuted as Georgia law allows.

Tagami cited several reasons for the lack of criminal pursuit; evidence considered too weak for prosecution, no witnesses beyond the student or a victim unwilling to cooperate. He also documented a loophole in Georgia law that requires the perpetrator have “supervisory or disciplinary authority” over the student for criminal prosecution.

(The courts have maintained every teacher in a school doesn’t have authority over every student, but a solicitor general out of Macon told Tagami that students often feel all adults in a school have authority over them.)

A big question: What drives a teacher to pursue a relationship with a student? It seems almost a death wish to me, as the teachers often lose their jobs, their families and their reputations.

There isn’t a large body of research on teachers who engage in sexual relations with students. And there are no reliable statistics. Most estimates draw on news stories, of which there are several hundred a year, mostly about male teachers with female students.  (Keep in mind teachers accused of sexual misconduct represent a tiny percentage of the more than 3.5 million k-12 teachers in America.)

In the wake of a series of high-profile news accounts, there is now more awareness that women teachers can also abuse students. In a 2013 British study of a small sample of women in positions of trust, including teachers, who had sexual relations with kids in their care, researchers Andrea J. Darling and Georgios A. Antonopoulos found the women didn’t lack social skills, writing, “…most of them were perceived to be very successful in their working relationships with colleagues and most appeared to have friendship groups of their own.”

However, the women had histories of problems with relationships. “This manifested itself in significant dependency on the adolescents for their own happiness,” wrote the researchers. “Motivations appear to have been primarily driven by intimacy needs rather than any particular sexual deviancy. The abusers themselves tended to explain their behavior as resulting from a genuine romantic and emotional relationship with the adolescent. Most failed to recognize or accept the impact of the position of trust and all demonstrated a range of cognitive distortions contributing to the occurrence of the abuse in the first place and its continuation thereafter. “

In an online essay last year, Dr. Darling said there was more acknowledgement today that female teachers can also be sexual abusers. But, she said news coverage often romanticized the relationships. “There needs to be less of the soft focus, romantic themed shots set against dreamy music and more of the harsh reality of the impact of this type of abuse on young people – as well as their friends, families and communities,” she wrote. 

Studies have found the courts are less harsh on female violators. In an oft-cited example, a 43-year-old female teacher in New Jersey was originally sentenced to five-years’ probation in 2001 for sex with a seventh-grade boy. The judge reasoned the 13-year-old benefitted from the sexual experience and likely suffered no real damage. The judge said, “I really don’t see the harm that was done here…and certainly society doesn’t need to be worried.” Outrage followed, and an appeals court tossed out the probation a year later and sentenced the teacher to three years in prison.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.