Why should it be illegal for teachers and their students to have sex?

I’ve just been to New Orleans in the USA for a holiday – a very nice place by the way – so do visit if you get the chance. But what gripped my attention was not the fascinating colonial history of one of America’s oldest cities, nor even the progress the city was making to re-build after Hurricane Katrina, it wasn’t even the captivating atmosphere generated by the jazz and blues riffs drifting up and down every street. It was a sex scandal involving two female teachers and a male student.

I was confronted with this news one morning as I stepped out to buy a local newspaper – something I like to do when I’m abroad – just to get the feel of the society I’m in. I strolled down a street in the delightful French Quarter and found one of those funny little American news-stands where you insert 75c and take a newspaper from the pile. Emblazoned across the front page of The New Orleans Times-Picayne were the faces of Rachel Respess and Shelley Dufresne who were accused of having sex with a 16 year-old student from their high school and had been arrested and charged with “carnal knowledge of a juvenile, indecent behaviour with a juvenile and contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile”.

I’d hardly begun to read the story in detail over my first coffee of the day in a local breakfast diner before I heard the first comments drifting across the restaurant from local New Orleanians. To some it was the source of some rather risqué jokes about “What a way to learn your three-times table!” To others the news was a cause of outrage and anger.

I have written before how I think young teachers as well as students can be vulnerable to inappropriate and sexual relationships (see my blog: “What’s the problem with inappropriate relationships?”). Young, new teachers may be lonely, comparatively immature and when only a few years exist between themselves and their students, they can inappropriately allow friendliness to become intimacy. In this case, one of the teachers was just 24 years old. The other one however was a 32 year-old mother of three. They both denied the charges.

The young man involved was a quarter-back on the high school football team. He had bragged to his friends and team-mates that he was – allegedly – having sex with two of his teachers and that he had a video to prove it.

This case, like some others in the UK that have involved sexual relationships between teachers and students, raised a number of interesting issues for me – and not least, I admit – my own prurient interest!

But seriously, the first issue that struck me was that in the state of Louisiana the age of consent is 17 – a year older than the UK and two or three years older than some European countries (like Sweden, France and Denmark where it is 15 and Germany, Austria and Italy where it is 14).

Interestingly though, Louisiana has a number of so-called ‘close-age exemptions’. These are where a person between 13 and 15 years of age can consent to have sex with someone who is up to three years older than them. Another is that a person between 15 and 17 can consent to sex with someone two years older than them. Of course, there is no exemption of any kind for teachers, however close in age they are to their students.

The second thing that struck me was the severity of the possible sentences the two teachers were facing. In Louisiana “carnal knowledge of a juvenile, indecent behaviour with a juvenile and contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile” are all, as you might imagine, serious criminal charges – what the Americans call felonies – and can carry a prison sentence of one to fifty years.

Though the young man was sixteen and was reported to have consented to the sex (he had bragged about it to his friends on the football team after all), he is nevertheless a minor in the state of Louisiana. So the teachers, if convicted, are likely to receive a prison sentence and possibly a long one if it can be proved they ‘groomed’ the student.

Though I haven’t been able to find out how long these particular laws have been in force in Louisiana, it did make me reflect on comparisons with UK law. (I did this over my by-now, mid-morning coffee… as you can see, free coffee re-fills in American diners have their advantages…)

I pondered that, in the UK, the law prohibiting sex between a teacher and a school student in the same school only came in with the Sexual Offences Act of 2003. Before then – as long as the student was over 16 – it was not illegal for a teacher and a student to have a sexual relationship. Now it is illegal even if the student is over 18 and an adult.

Bizarrely though, it is still not illegal for a teacher and a student to have a sexual relationship if they are at separate schools. As long as the student is sixteen and the teacher and student are at separate schools, it is not illegal.

I have no problem in deciding for myself that sex between a teacher and a school student at the same school is wrong. I don’t need a law to tell me that. I entirely agree it is a catastrophic breach of professional trust. In my view teachers should be sacked for it. I would probably even agree that teachers should be permanently struck off the teaching register for such a breach of their professional code.

But should it be illegal?

Why should a consensual sexual encounter or relationship with someone over the age of consent be a criminal offence – with the attendant threat of a very heavy prison sentence?

Yes, it’s wrong. Yes, it’s a breach of trust. Yes it should be a sack-able offence, even one that results in permanent barring from the profession. But should it be criminal?

Not in my view.

In my view, it is excessively punitive and I don’t see why teachers should be made an example of in this way. These are foolish and reckless mistakes but a heavy prison sentence and criminal record is not an appropriate response to them. I think we should look again at this law before it cripples the lives of more teachers. Furthermore, I can’t see what help it is affording the students involved – the (so-called) victims – their lives could also be potentially ruined by the guilt they may feel for the rest of their lives for consensually indulging in a relationship that has resulted in someone going to prison for a very long time.

That’s my view. What’s yours?

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Alan Newland worked as a teacher, teacher-trainer and headteacher in London for over 20 years and then for a decade with the DfE and the General Teaching Council. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk.

You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk and book him for a talk.

His new book “Working in Teaching” (Crimson Publishing) was published in March 2014.

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