Analysis Sexuality

Teachers (Allegedly) Behaving Badly: More News on Inappropriate Sexual Behavior Between Teachers and Students

Martha Kempner

Just as we have sexual harassment laws to protect employees from inappropriate behavior by employers, we need rules to protect students.  And the news from across the country this week confirms this.

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.

News Sexual Health

State with Nation’s Highest Chlamydia Rate Enacts New Restrictions on Sex Ed

Nicole Knight Shine

By requiring sexual education instructors to be certified teachers, the Alaska legislature is targeting Planned Parenthood, which is the largest nonprofit provider of such educational services in the state.

Alaska is imposing a new hurdle on comprehensive sexual health education with a law restricting schools to only hiring certificated school teachers to teach or supervise sex ed classes.

The broad and controversial education bill, HB 156, became law Thursday night without the signature of Gov. Bill Walker, a former Republican who switched his party affiliation to Independent in 2014. HB 156 requires school boards to vet and approve sex ed materials and instructors, making sex ed the “most scrutinized subject in the state,” according to reproductive health advocates.

Republicans hold large majorities in both chambers of Alaska’s legislature.

Championing the restrictions was state Sen. Mike Dunleavy (R-Wasilla), who called sexuality a “new concept” during a Senate Education Committee meeting in April. Dunleavy added the restrictions to HB 156 after the failure of an earlier measure that barred abortion providers—meaning Planned Parenthood—from teaching sex ed.

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Dunleavy has long targeted Planned Parenthood, the state’s largest nonprofit provider of sexual health education, calling its instruction “indoctrination.”

Meanwhile, advocates argue that evidence-based health education is sorely needed in a state that reported 787.5 cases of chlamydia per 100,000 people in 2014—the nation’s highest rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Surveillance Survey for that year.

Alaska’s teen pregnancy rate is higher than the national average.

The governor in a statement described his decision as a “very close call.”

“Given that this bill will have a broad and wide-ranging effect on education statewide, I have decided to allow HB 156 to become law without my signature,” Walker said.

Teachers, parents, and advocates had urged Walker to veto HB 156. Alaska’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners, took to Twitter following Walker’s announcement, writing, as reported by Juneau Empire, “This will cause such a burden on teachers [and] our partners in health education, including parents [and] health [professionals].”

An Anchorage parent and grandparent described her opposition to the bill in an op-ed, writing, “There is no doubt that HB 156 is designed to make it harder to access real sexual health education …. Although our state faces its largest budget crisis in history, certain members of the Legislature spent a lot of time worrying that teenagers are receiving information about their own bodies.”

Jessica Cler, Alaska public affairs manager with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest and Hawaii, called Walker’s decision a “crushing blow for comprehensive and medically accurate sexual health education” in a statement.

She added that Walker’s “lack of action today has put the education of thousands of teens in Alaska at risk. This is designed to do one thing: Block students from accessing the sex education they need on safe sex and healthy relationships.”

The law follows the 2016 Legislative Round-up released this week by advocacy group Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States. The report found that 63 percent of bills this year sought to improve sex ed, but more than a quarter undermined student rights or the quality of instruction by various means, including “promoting misinformation and an anti-abortion agenda.”

Commentary Sexual Health

Parents, Educators Can Support Pediatricians in Providing Comprehensive Sexuality Education

Nicole Cushman

While medical systems will need to evolve to address the challenges preventing pediatricians from sharing medically accurate and age-appropriate information about sexuality with their patients, there are several things I recommend parents and educators do to reinforce AAP’s guidance.

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a clinical report outlining guidance for pediatricians on providing sexuality education to the children and adolescents in their care. As one of the most influential medical associations in the country, AAP brings, with this report, added weight to longstanding calls for comprehensive sex education.

The report offers guidance for clinicians on incorporating conversations about sexual and reproductive health into routine medical visits and summarizes the research supporting comprehensive sexuality education. It acknowledges the crucial role pediatricians play in supporting their patients’ healthy development, making them key stakeholders in the promotion of young people’s sexual health. Ultimately, the report could bolster efforts by parents and educators to increase access to comprehensive sexuality education and better equip young people to grow into sexually healthy adults.

But, while the guidance provides persuasive, evidence-backed encouragement for pediatricians to speak with parents and children and normalize sexual development, the report does not acknowledge some of the practical challenges to implementing such recommendations—for pediatricians as well as parents and school staff. Articulating these real-world challenges (and strategies for overcoming them) is essential to ensuring the report does not wind up yet another publication collecting proverbial dust on bookshelves.

The AAP report does lay the groundwork for pediatricians to initiate conversations including medically accurate and age-appropriate information about sexuality, and there is plenty in the guidelines to be enthusiastic about. Specifically, the report acknowledges something sexuality educators have long known—that a simple anatomy lesson is not sufficient. According to the AAP, sexuality education should address interpersonal relationships, body image, sexual orientation, gender identity, and reproductive rights as part of a comprehensive conversation about sexual health.

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The report further acknowledges that young people with disabilities, chronic health conditions, and other special needs also need age- and developmentally appropriate sex education, and it suggests resources for providing care to LGBTQ young people. Importantly, the AAP rejects abstinence-only approaches as ineffective and endorses comprehensive sexuality education.

It is clear that such guidance is sorely needed. Previous studies have shown that pediatricians have not been successful at having conversations with their patients about sexuality. One study found that one in three adolescents did not receive any information about sexuality from their pediatrician during health maintenance visits, and those conversations that did occur lasted less than 40 seconds, on average. Another analysis showed that, among sexually experienced adolescents, only a quarter of girls and one-fifth of boys had received information from a health-care provider about sexually transmitted infections or HIV in the last year. 

There are a number of factors at play preventing pediatricians from having these conversations. Beyond parental pushback and anti-choice resistance to comprehensive sex education, which Martha Kempner has covered in depth for Rewire, doctor visits are often limited in time and are not usually scheduled to allow for the kind of discussion needed to build a doctor-patient relationship that would be conducive to providing sexuality education. Doctors also may not get needed in-depth training to initiate and sustain these important, ongoing conversations with patients and their families.

The report notes that children and adolescents prefer a pediatrician who is nonjudgmental and comfortable discussing sexuality, answering questions and addressing concerns, but these interpersonal skills must be developed and honed through clinical training and practice. In order to fully implement the AAP’s recommendations, medical school curricula and residency training programs would need to devote time to building new doctors’ comfort with issues surrounding sexuality, interpersonal skills for navigating tough conversations, and knowledge and skills necessary for providing LGBTQ-friendly care.

As AAP explains in the report, sex education should come from many sources—schools, communities, medical offices, and homes. It lays out what can be a powerful partnership between parents, doctors, and educators in providing the age-appropriate and truly comprehensive sexuality education that young people need and deserve. While medical systems will need to evolve to address the challenges outlined above, there are several things I recommend parents and educators do to reinforce AAP’s guidance.

Parents and Caregivers: 

  • When selecting a pediatrician for your child, ask potential doctors about their approach to sexuality education. Make sure your doctor knows that you want your child to receive comprehensive, medically accurate information about a range of issues pertaining to sexuality and sexual health.
  • Talk with your child at home about sex and sexuality. Before a doctor’s visit, help your child prepare by encouraging them to think about any questions they may have for the doctor about their body, sexual feelings, or personal safety. After the visit, check in with your child to make sure their questions were answered.
  • Find out how your child’s school approaches sexuality education. Make sure school administrators, teachers, and school board members know that you support age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education that will complement the information provided by you and your child’s pediatrician.

School Staff and Educators: 

  • Maintain a referral list of pediatricians for parents to consult. When screening doctors for inclusion on the list, ask them how they approach sexuality education with patients and their families.
  • Involve supportive pediatricians in sex education curriculum review committees. Medical professionals can provide important perspective on what constitutes medically accurate, age- and developmentally-appropriate content when selecting or adapting curriculum materials for sex education classes.
  • Adopt sex-education policies and curricula that are comprehensive and inclusive of all young people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Ensure that teachers receive the training and support they need to provide high-quality sex education to their students.

The AAP clinical report provides an important step toward ensuring that young people receive sexuality education that supports their healthy sexual development. If adopted widely by pediatricians—in partnership with parents and schools—the report’s recommendations could contribute to a sea change in providing young people with the care and support they need.