Last week, I wrote about a decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court which overturned a law that made it illegal for a teacher to have consensual sex with a student even if the student was over 18. The court said that while such a relationship may be reprehensible the state couldn’t legislate sexual behavior between adults. I disagree because I don’t think age is the most important issue when it comes to consent and sexual relationships. (See my piece on age of consent laws for a discussion of legislating sex between teens.)
In the case of teachers and students, the issue is the balance of power. Regardless of the age of the student or the age difference between teacher and student, the balance of power is inherently tipped toward the teacher. Just as we have sexual harassment laws to protect employees from inappropriate behavior by employers, we need rules to protect students. And news from across the country this week confirms this.
Yet another case of a high school teacher allegedly having sex with a student made national headlines this week when Sara Jones formally pleaded not guilty to sexually abusing a student and “unlawful use of electronic means to induce a minor to engage in sexual activities.” The case has caught the attention of national media at least in part because Ms. Jones served as the head cheerleader for the Cincinnati Bengals last year. Moreover, she has already been the subject of a sex-related scandal for which she was interviewed by ABC’s 20/20 and CNN’s Anderson Cooper. In 2009, Ms. Jones sued the online gossip site TheDirty.com and its operator, Nik Richie, after it posted “unflattering” pictures of her and alleged that she’d had sex with all of the Bengals players, that she had two STDs, and that she’d had sex in her classroom. Though she initially won an $11 million settlement, in a bizarre twist, it turned out that her lawyer had technically filed suit against the wrong site (TheDirt.com instead of TheDirty.com) and they must retry the case.
I think the media’s fascination with Ms. Jones’s behavior though is even simpler than that. We are always curious about cases in which a female teacher allegedly has an affair with a male student. Who can forget Mary Kay Letourneau, Debra LaFave, or even Pamela Smart. I believe that our ears perk up when we hear about these cases because deep down there’s a sense that there is no victim; girls with older men are victimized, boys with older women are just lucky.
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And this phenomenon may certainly be at play here because the young man in question has said that “nothing happened” and refuses to serve as a complaining witness. In fact, his family is not only backing up his story but came to court in support of Ms. Jones and sat next to her while they waited for the case to be called. It is hard to imagine this happening in a case where a male teacher is accused of having sex with a 16-year-old girl. The case goes to trial in June, though without a “victim” prosecutors may have an uphill battle.
Other news about teachers behaving badly came out of New York City where the Department of Education (DOE) released a report detailing 16 incidents in which teachers were accused of inappropriate behavior but received a lesser punishment than the DOE had recommended. Not all of the cases were of a sexual nature but a significant number were. Take that of the high school health teacher in Manhattan who joked about life for homosexuals in prison by forcing a male student to bend over a desk, coming up behind him to simulate anal sex, and saying: “I’ll show you what’s gay.” Then there was the science teacher who brushed up against a student so close that she said she could feel his genitals and the English teacher who sent a student romantic poems written in Russian. Perhaps most disturbing is the Bronx math teacher who seemed to become obsessed with a female student; he texted and called her more than 50 times in a four-week period and, over the winter holidays, “parked himself at the McDonald’s where she worked.”
The report focuses on the system in which decisions about disciplinary actions are left up to an outside arbitrator rather the school system itself. In the cases mentioned in the report, these arbitrators opted for lesser punishments than were suggested by the city such as fines, suspensions, or formal reprimands. Attorneys for the teacher’s union as well some of the teachers themselves argue that this system is necessary in order to assure due process. One of the biggest concerns with it, however, is that teachers with a history of inappropriate behavior can move schools and stay in contact with students, without anyone knowing of their history. This issue took center stage in recent months as seven school employees in the city have been arrested for sexual offenses involving students. Just this week, an assistant principal in the Bronx was accused of groping two girls. As the New York Times reports, “In two of those cases, the employees had a history of behaving improperly around students, but simply moved to another school and kept working.”
I am a steadfast believer in due process. Just like anyone else, a teacher accused of behaving inappropriately is innocent until proven guilty. That said, I think these cases show once again that it’s not about age as much as power and we do have to protect young people from those in positions of authority. Sarah Jones is being charged under a Kentucky law that makes it a felony “for a person in authority to have even consensual sexual relations with someone under 18.” Whether it’s laws like this and the one struck down last week in Arkansas or school system rules like those proposed by New York City’s school chancellor to make records of previous inappropriate behavior more readily available, it is our responsibility as adults to protect young people… even young men.