Classroom confidential

Following a number of high-profile sex abuse scandals, high schools across the country have begun carefully policing teacher-student relationships. But is this new vigilance keeping the most committed teachers from doing their best?

By Sarah Karnasiewicz
April 27, 2006 4:59PM (UTC)
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When I was 17, I fell in love with writing -- and with the middle-aged man who taught me English. It was my senior year at boarding school and I was nursing wounds from a summer crush on a college guy. Unlike the tattooed lout who'd broken my heart, Mr. L wore wrinkled khakis and faded Oxford broadcloths and had tousled hair that was perpetually damp and smelling of soap, as though he'd just come in from a run.

And Mr. L noticed me. Unlike the lout, he seemed to recognize some potential in me, something more than curly hair and cleavage. That semester, I began a routine I still observe: rising early in the morning to write, alone among the humming machines in the dark computer lab. I thrilled when Mr. L praised my short stories and read them aloud to the class; wrote notes on the back of my assignments, peppered with both professorial advice and allusions to his own young romances; urged me to keep working. He humored me when I found excuses to visit his office. Some afternoons, when class was over, he'd walk the hall with me, his hand momentarily lighting on my shoulder.


I was hardly alone in my adoration. Mr. L had a reputation as a heartbreaker , and it was impossible not to notice his female students' tendency to linger outside his classroom door. And though they didn't share the same last name (how cool!), I knew that Mr. L had a wife -- a bright, lovely woman with dark cropped hair and doe eyes like Ali McGraw's, who taught sophomores. No matter. My infatuation with him may have been just a lark, but my striving teenage heart loved Mr. L for letting me believe that I might one day write my way into his life -- or if not his, someone's just as worthy.

Mr. L no longer teaches at my high school, but even so, I'm not about to reveal his name. All in all, beyond a vague mutual chemistry, nothing untoward transpired between us; in fact, maybe more than even I would like to admit, this story -- and especially my memory of it -- is so ordinary as to be the stuff of clichi, a textbook schoolgirl crush cut from coming-of-age novels and countless Hollywood scripts.

But in many school districts today, for Mr. L to behave the way he did with me would be to risk his teaching career and his reputation. Administrators and school boards, spooked by a spate of high-profile school sex scandals and fearful of lawsuits, have begun cracking down on student-teacher relationships, despite charges from critics that they are succumbing to unwarranted sexual hysteria. This new censoriousness may protect students from inappropriate behavior, although the question of whether abuse itself is on the rise is hotly disputed. Many teachers and educational advocates worry that such changes also prevent teachers from reaching out to students -- and ultimately create a stifling climate that gets in the way of engaged education.


Schools, particularly universities, began the thorny task of policing student-teacher relationships decades ago. But the legislative turning point didn't come until the mid-1990s, when the Supreme Court decided in three separate cases that under Title IX (the educational amendment that prohibits sex discrimination in any federally funded education program or activity) schools districts are financially liable for sexual harassment -- whether an incident occurs between two teachers, two students or a teacher and a student. At that time, most universities already informally discouraged intimate relationships between instructors and students, but in the wake of the court's decision, schools began drafting official disciplinary policies to address such situations. By 2003, the University of Michigan, for example, had adopted a code that forbids romantic relationships between faculty members and any student with whom they have a supervisory relationship, and requires faculty to report any other relationship with a student to a supervisor. Similar standards were in place at dozens of other schools, including Yale, the University of California and Ohio Northern University. Since then, even more colleges, including Iowa State, Syracuse University and the University of New Mexico, have taken relationship bans one step further, outlawing romances between all faculty and students, regardless of their academic relationships, ages or mutual consent.

But now, laws governing student-teacher behavior are filtering down to the high school level, as a string of high school sex-abuse cases -- a number of them involving female teachers, such as Sandra Beth Geisel and Debra Lafave -- have led school officials to take a harder line on fraternizing. Currently all states have laws mandating background checks for public school employees and in most cases an additional check takes place every three to five years when teachers come up for recertification. Until recently, however, other than including a boilerplate sexual harassment policy in school handbooks, requiring basic ethics training upon hiring new faculty, and instituting a liability-conscious ban on students' riding in employees' cars, few high schools felt the need to spell out strict regulations regarding teacher-student intimacy.

Last summer, when a Chicago public school teacher was charged with having a sexual affair with one of his students -- a liaison that was allegedly initiated through a series of e-mails -- a city school spokesman told the Chicago Sun Times that local administrators were reconsidering whether they would allow teachers to communicate with students via school or personal e-mail accounts. Soon after, Carolyn Palmer, the principal of Chicago's Spencer Academy, told the paper that she planned to offer parents the "option of receiving an emailed copy of all student-teacher email exchanges." When a Massachusetts high school teacher was arrested for sexual assault earlier this year, the Boston Globe reported that in response, area schools were devoting renewed energy to enforcing behavioral guidelines for teachers. Until then, the Boston School Department had no explicit rules concerning teacher-student relationships. But in the wake of the abuse arrest -- and following a swell of similar, highly publicized cases nation- and worldwide -- principals from Arlington, Framingham and Newton went on record in the Globe to express concern over a lack of awareness regarding "professional conduct" and raised the possibility that they might soon "creat[e] guidelines [for teachers] concerning gifts, outings, and other activities with students." In February, after a 25-year-old high school teacher in Robertson County, Tenn., resigned amid charges of misconduct, Geraldine Farmer, a member of the East Robertson school board, told a reporter for the Tennessean that the administration intended to "do everything possible" to safeguard students. "If that means new rules, we'll go there."


While concern about sexual abuse in schools may not be new, the buzz generated by the recent press attention has ratcheted up the stakes, and prompted administrators to take extra care to train new teachers about appropriate conduct and warn veterans of the strict standards. Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, confirms the trend. "There is no doubt that there has been a major heightening of awareness among school administrators and teachers," he explains. "And the message is not just no sex, it's no touching -- because there is a point at which a handshake becomes a hug, which becomes a fondle, which becomes an opportunity to cop a feel. There is always a place where the line becomes blurry and so the smart teachers just don't even go near it."

"This issue has been on the radar for a while ... but now [administrators] are getting at more complexities and may be more formally policing the appearance of inappropriate behavior," says Tom Hutton, of the National School Boards Association. "The fact is, schools would have a policy 1,200 pages long if they tried to cover every conceivable scenario, so mostly they [have stuck] to reiterating general harassment guidelines at the beginning of the school year. Part of the new focus is just about putting teachers on notice -- the rules might be cumbersome but they communicate the seriousness with which the district regards the issue."


And the message is serious. The cumulative result of the scandals -- and the fear they have inspired -- has been to discourage teachers from meeting with students alone or behind closed doors, having personal conversations, interacting with students off campus or offering them a ride in their cars, or engaging in any kind of physical contact -- whether it be a maternal hug or a handshake.

Jessica S., 29, a high school English and music teacher in Brooklyn, N.Y., says that since beginning teaching at a public high school two years ago, she has made a conscious decision to enforce strict boundaries between herself and her pupils. "Now when a student gives me a hug, I hesitate, and I am always super conscious of leaving a door open if I'm in a room with a student, male or female. I've heard enough accusations to know that all it takes is two students saying, 'So and so sure spends a lot of time with Ms. S,' for trouble to start." But she is also aware that those boundaries have changed the way she does her job. "There are students I have relationships with that I feel go beyond the teacher, more toward caretaker," she explains. "[One girl] tells me about how she's sad all the time, she's tired all the time -- she is always talking to me. She's clearly depressed. So this is a girl I want to hug on a daily basis. But I can't -- I can only refer her to guidance, who tells me they can't do anything more. Still, I can't treat her differently, because when you try to go the extra mile for kids who really need it, it gets misconstrued, not even just for something sexual, but for favoritism."

Hutton, of the NSBA, says that situations such as the one Jessica describes are growing increasingly common. "Even aside from prompting formal policy changes, these [abuse] cases affect the way educators act on their own," he explains. "Maybe they stop hugging. Maybe they don't give extra help. Music teachers say, 'I can't give private lessons, I need to have two flute players in my room at all time.' So changes aren't even necessarily a function of state policy but of personal censorship and fear, because teachers read the papers, too."


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As someone who has spent the past 20-odd years in school, as both a student and a high school teacher, I've followed the stories of student-teacher sexual abuse with a mix of disgust and dread. Of course, schools should do their best to provide safe, unthreatening learning environments. A high school teacher who has sex with a student engages in an abuse of power and a violation of trust so profound that there's no room for debate.

But -- and this is a critical caveat that seems to be missing from current discussion -- there is an element to education, especially at the high school level and beyond, that at its best, is fundamentally intimate. When we talk about teachers who "make a difference," they are usually not the people who barricade themselves behind their desks, and something essential is lost when all personal contact between teachers and students is ruled off-limits. The cases that make the news are black and white. But the dilemma lies in the gray areas where parents and educators face a collision of two positive imperatives, between the desire to protect their children from a small risk of sexual abuse and the desire to allow great teachers to do their jobs well. Isn't it possible that a completely risk-free education -- like a risk-free life -- is also a mediocre one?


Gina Barreca, a professor of English literature and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut and the editor of "The Erotics of Instruction," a collection of essays about the role of desire and attraction in education, defends student relationships that go beyond the classroom, and include affection. "Sometimes there are just kids that you really like, that you feel affectionate towards, like a son or a daughter -- and you would like to go see them perform in a play, or in a sports game -- to get to know and support them outside the confines of the classroom," she explains.

Though their sacrifices are not always acknowledged, many great teachers make their students a big part of their lives. Take the archetypical hero-teacher, Mr. Chipping, of the 1939 film "Goodbye, Mr. Chips." Chips starts his career as a stern schoolmaster, feared and disliked by his students. Only after being softened by age and marriage does he begin to see that perhaps affection and respect are better ways to shape his pupils. As the film unfolds, Chips changes; he remains serious about his lessons, but also begins inviting his pupils to his room for afternoon tea, ignoring their hoarded stashes of candy, bending the dormitory rules a bit, and encouraging humor in his classroom. The movie's moral is clear: Chips may have been a competent instructor from the start, but only when he begins to care for his class, to know them as young men, does he truly become a teacher.

Indeed, looking back at my own education, the teachers I most admired were rarely pictures of professionalism; they were energetic, emotional, passionate, open. They took pleasure in teasing out their students' curiosity. They were men and women who made it clear that they were interested in their pupils, in learning, and in life in general -- outside the sterile school walls and beyond the boundaries of the curriculum.

Granted, I went to boarding school, the kind of place where you can't escape the teachers if you try (and at 15, believe me, you try). But even in those close quarters, some instructors stand out. When I was a junior, I baby-sat for a faculty couple who had recently divorced, walking between their houses on alternate nights, reading their sons stories and then hanging out on their couches, drinking tea after the kids went to bed. That spring, Ms. C, my English teacher, who was also my advisor, took me and a friend to see Ani DiFranco play at a college town coffeehouse an hour away. As my advisor, she let me hang out on her living room floor and make mix tapes. But also as a teacher, Ms. C both demanded dedication from her students and allowed for unexpected creativity. One night, after reading Shakespeare's "The Tempest," I found myself awake at 10 o'clock the night before my paper was due, staring at a blank page; when I called Ms. C in a panic, full of excuses, she didn't threaten me with an F. She told me flatly that I had to find a way to write about the book -- any way to write about the book. I stayed up most of the night. And the next day I handed in a five-page poem of my own, written in perfect iambic pentameter. I had never written anything like it before; I had no idea where it came from. But now, though I read -- and wrote about -- five Shakespeare plays during high school, it's still "The Tempest" I remember.


Even at 16, I knew those relationships were extraordinary -- in the best sense of the word. And when I became a high school teacher myself, though I worked at a day school, I found inspiration in my teachers' examples. I believed wholeheartedly that, especially because we dealt with adolescents, my colleagues and I had a responsibility not just to turn our students into good writers, or artists, or mathematicians, but to infect them with an interest in the world and the people in it, to point them toward adulthood with as much hope and passion as possible. Would Ms. C still be able to do that today? Maybe. Surely some passionate and dedicated teachers will defy bureaucracies and puritanical rules. But many others will not. Is this a trade-off we are willing to make?

As a veteran teacher, Barreca is puzzled by the public's frenzied reaction to teacher-student intimacy. "I want to know why all of a sudden we are so hysterical about this, what does this new concern reflect?" she asks. "Because these impulses have been there since Socrates! So this sudden focus on it really seems to be a deflection of a larger series of fears."

Indeed, in a way that's all too familiar, it's hard to distinguish America's fear of its youth being sexually abused from its prurient fascination with the subject. The headlines announce: "Sextracurricular Perv-Teach Crisis," "Sex Education With Hands-on Training" and "Hottie Pedophiles Deserve Prison Time, Too." Tabloids and cable channels obsess over female teachers who prey on young boys: Mary Kay Letourneau, Christina Gallagher, Sandra Beth Geisel, Emily Morris and the rest of their ilk. And in a flourish reminiscent of pulp novels and pornos, this March, when former Florida middle school teacher and tabloid staple Debra Lafave was dismissed from charges of sexual abuse, Fox News accompanied its report with a photograph depicting Lafave stripped to her underwear, astride a motorcycle. In our hunt for inappropriate teacher-student liaisons, it seems terror has become mixed up with titillation.

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The recent spate of high-profile teacher-sex cases, including Lafave's, creates the impression that there has been a spike in sexual abuse among schoolteachers, but in fact hard figures are difficult to come by, and those statistics that are available are subject to debate. The report most widely cited by journalists and administrators is "Educator Sexual Misconduct," by Carol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University, which was released in 2004 in accordance with a mandate from the Department of Education under No Child Left Behind. Shakeshaft's portrait of the American education system is grim, with an estimated 10 percent -- that's 4.5 million -- of children in public schools enduring sexual abuse by a teacher or employee. Since her report's release, however, some of Shakeshafts methods have come under fire. John Mitchell, deputy director of the American Federation of Teachers, explains that the study, while well intentioned, "couldn't provide good data [because] of the problematic ways in which it was compiled, lumping together a whole range of behaviors." Indeed, by employing a definition of abuse so broad that it includes everything from intercourse to off-color jokes, some argue that Shakeshaft makes it difficult to gauge the scale and seriousness of the problem. Close reading of the study also reveals that the report's conclusions are drawn from a huge body of published sources from around the U.S. and as far away as Australia, Britain and Canada, and ranging from the years 1989 to 2003. As Wendy McElroy writes in a critique of the report, published by the Independent Institute, a progressive public policy research center: "Several hundred stories stretched over 15 years and three continents do not point to 4.5 million American children being abused today."

But if there hasn't been a surge in the number of students abused, what accounts for the sudden public obsession with teacher-student sex cases? What has changed? James Kincaid, professor of English at the University of Southern California and the author of "Erotic Innocence," attributes the furor to two related causes: school administrators' fear of lawsuits and a loss of trust in their teachers. "Schools will continue to act this way because they need to protect their assets from lawsuits. But what is going to be lost is the ability for dedicated, talented teachers to do their jobs," he says. "I don't know why we don't trust that people -- adults and children -- can go about their lives more or less in good faith."

On the other hand, it's impossible to deny that predators do exist, or that protecting children from danger should be a priority. John Mitchell, of the American Federation of Teachers, defends the new constraints. Pointing out that the issue of sexual harassment and abuse has been a primary concern for educators for decades, he says that strict behavioral guidelines are necessary to prevent abuse, and that if they change the way teachers do their work, it is rightly so. "To not be alone with a student, to not touch -- this is very common advice to new teachers, and yes, it can have a chilling effect on the school environment. But it is absolutely appropriate. It's just a fact that it has to be there -- because it's best for everyone to remember that when it comes down to it, that relationship is one that is essentially professional. The fact is that teachers should be responsible for maintaining professionalism, not the students ... [so] I think it's very healthy that this is happening." But Mitchell is also quick to warn that school communities need to act carefully not to convict capable teachers on the basis of rumor and hearsay: "I do think that as society has become more litigious there has been more fear among teachers that they will be destroyed by allegations that are not valid."

Koocher, of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, worries that the new climate is intimidating teachers while not yielding clear benefits. "It's true that we used to have a lot more confidence in teachers. Of course, that also meant that people got away with a lot more," he says. "Now I don't know if there's any more or less abuse, but more teachers are being punished -- and the lesson to everyone is that those who cross the line will be hung out to dry."


The fact is that even without the added fear of abuse allegations, this is not a liberal era in teaching. Since No Child Left Behind went into effect, many educators have complained that their schools have become hyper-regulated, punitive environments where the emphasis is on rote effort rather than enthusiasm. In the Winter 2006 edition of the magazine Rethinking Schools, Doug Selwyn writes about the frustration young teachers experience when they are forced to use heavily scripted, "teacher-proof" materials. An education professor in Tacoma, Wash., tells Selwyn that she has had two students tell her that "I'm not sure I want to be a teacher if that's how I have to teach." Indeed, rookie teachers, who, given the piddling salaries and emotional demands that come with the job, often choose the profession out of a commitment to educational equity and social justice, find themselves disillusioned by a school culture that is emotionally distant and resistant to innovation and change. Add to that mix an aggressively litigious climate of sexual fear and paranoia, and it's hard not to wonder why any adult would choose to make a career in the classroom.

Critics of the crackdown on teacher-student intimacy see a connection between the current shortfall of smart, young teachers and the increasingly puritanical atmosphere promoted in schools. "Why force teachers to lose the rewards of having honest relationships with their students? But that's what we're doing; Now relationships are only allowed when they are part of a curriculum," says Barreca. "If we were serious about attracting and keeping good teachers in schools, it seems to me that we would be giving people who choose teaching some leeway to forge relationships that give students enthusiasm and the possibility of joy. We don't want them to jerk off but we want them to be excited! To prevent abuse, we don't have to ask to strip students and teachers of their personalities, some of which will affectionate, god willing."

Jessica S., the Brooklyn high school teacher, agrees that often the real connections between teachers and students are forged not during lessons, but in the unstructured time before and after class. "My sense of so many of my kids is that they are completely ignored and they need someone to talk to. I don't necessarily want to be their friend, but the more comfortable they are around me, the more I feel like they'll be ready to talk about important issues. And honestly, they need to be comfortable enough to ask questions and relax."

For years, the New York subway trains have featured a poster for the New York City Teaching Fellows that carries the tag line, "You remember your 1st grade teacher's name. Who will remember yours?" It's a poignant ad, one that effortlessly plays on both the public's nostalgia for childhood and the idealistic image of teachers as heroes -- the same notions that underpin a whole genre of Hollywood film, stretching from Anne Bancroft in "The Miracle Worker" to Robin Williams in "Dead Poets Society" and Michelle Pfeiffer in "Dangerous Minds." But if that is the model we are to embrace, shouldn't we also be honest with ourselves about what makes teachers memorable? Or are unconventional, passionate teachers OK only when they exist in two dimensions? "People don't seem to get the fact that just like you can hate someone without killing them, you can care for someone without having sex with them," Barreca explains. "Everyone can remember a teacher they hated. Shouldn't they also be able to remember a teacher they loved?"

Darcy S., a 28-year-old medical student in Milwaukee, Wis., remembers one. "The year I had Mr. J for physics, he met the woman he ended up marrying," she says. "After he proposed, he told the story -- I remember all of it. He was from the hills of Kentucky, so he had taken her home to meet his parents. They went for a hike somewhere that had a waterfall they could walk behind. He found a lump of coal and gave it to her, saying, 'It will be a diamond in about a million years.' I let him know what a dork he was," she laughs. A former science teacher herself, Darcy counts Mr. J among her earliest influences and supporters. "Maybe the thing that I remember most was one time when I was mouthing off in class about integrals and volumes, and he said in front of the whole class, 'Darcy, when I get married my wife is going to boss me around just like you.' The thing is, I wasn't embarrassed by anything he said. I was just proud -- proud that he thought I was so opinionated and good at science."

Indeed, the teachers most of us remember fondly are those that seem instinctively able to transfer their students' affection for them into academic engagement. Chloe T., 29, who graduated from college with a degree in English, says that "when I'm being honest with myself, I can see I probably became a European Renaissance geek for one reason: dreamy Professor B." But though a teacher may spark a student's interest, in the end it is usually the subject that sates it. Ten years after graduating, she says she rarely thinks about Professor B. -- but keeps a copy of "Midsummer Night's Dream" by her bed.

Twelve years out of high school, I'm still rising early to write. If I could go back to Mr. L's class now, would I tell my 17-year-old self to take a step back, to protect herself? I doubt it. Mr. L stole my heart for one semester -- but he was a good man, and more to the point, a good teacher. He gave it, and more, back to me.

Sarah Karnasiewicz

Sarah Karnasiewicz is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. Until recently, she was senior editor at Saveur magazine; prior to that she was deputy Life editor at Salon. She has contributed to the New York Times, the New York Observer and Rolling Stone, among other publications. For more of her work, visit and Signs and Wonders.

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