Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Prevalence of Teacher/Student Sexual Relationships

Though I left Alabama eight years ago, I still check in periodically with the news from home. In the past several years I haven’t been able to avoid a distressingly persistent and viscerally disturbing set of related stories. Seemingly every few weeks or so a fresh set of allegations are raised. Another teacher has engaged in inappropriate and illegal sexual acts with a underage pupil. Most of these crimes are said to have occurred between high school students and their instructors. Women are charged as often as men, which challenges many easy assumptions.

To backpedal a bit, I should state for the record that I’m a child of the late 80’s and early 90’s. What is reported today with zest once took the form of rumors and whispers only. When I was in ninth or tenth grade, it was believed, quietly, that one of the alternative school teachers had engaged in a lesbian relationship with a student enrolled in her class. The matter was quickly hushed up and somehow never made the papers or the local newscast. That the tawdry details didn’t get out is due to the diligence and acumen of the district’s administrative staff. Damage control is one of the unwritten skill sets of every administrator.

It was only later, much later, that we learned, without much shock or surprise, that the allegations were entirely factual. School systems and private schools try to avoid negative publicity like the plague, and it’s curious to me how such a formerly ironclad code of silence has fallen by the wayside now. The process of firing and dismissal is usually done very quietly, and those who have their employment terminated are often not told the reasons why. According to the rules, they can’t be. The process is meant to save face for everyone. In extreme cases, of course, no amount of concealment was sufficient to keep a lid on tawdry, shocking stories.

Nearly twenty years ago, my middle school choir teacher was accused of molesting a fourteen-year-old student. After the news was made public, two or three other young men, former students themselves, came forward with the same charge. Birmingham media dutifully reported the crime a couple of days later. The accused looked haggard and desperate in his six-o-clock news mugshot, as though he hadn’t shaved or slept in several days. And he probably hadn’t. This was quite a contrast to his usually impeccable personal hygiene and grooming.

A trial followed not long afterwards. The case was, it appeared, fairly open-and-shut. A guilty plea was recorded. He was required to formally register as a sex offender and did a two year stint in jail before being released. Back at his former place of employment, everyone acted as though he had never existed. His name was never mentioned again at any time, for any reason. Sometimes the truth is too terrible to recount. And, as I began, situations like these are neither unusual, nor rare.

In my own life, I can think of only one circumstance where I might have been a potential target. I was too young to realize what was going on beneath the surface. Until I thought about it more closely in my adulthood, I merely perceived I’d run across a unusually curious person. For half of high school, I was a varsity athlete. My father paid for private workouts in a gym that catered exclusively to adolescent jocks of both sexes. One of the trainers on staff was a man probably in early middle age, with a ratty blonde mustache. He hung on every word that I said, making full eye contact, a smile forever on his face, and the effect was a little uncomfortable. I was only fifteen at the time, and assumed only that he must find me very interesting.

What I’ve stated are the details and effects, not the causes. A very conservative argument proclaims that the frequency of such regrettable offenses are evidence of great moral decay. Sexuality is much more pervasive and less stigmatized then in years prior, but I’m not satisfied that this is sufficient evidence in and of itself. One could always blame the Internet, but I credit it here mainly with showing direct evidence of how commonplace such crimes really are.

When I was in college, I knew of several professors who conducted flagrant affairs with their students. Several of them believed that such things were the fringe benefits of the profession. Though unethical, the practice is not illegal. Several of my female friends and classmates were impressed and wowed by intelligent, worldly older men. There’s a reason why this phenomenon is almost cliche and quite familiar.

All of the stories I’ve read about taboo sexuality and clandestine relationships like these have one thing in common. They don’t bother to explain the circumstances. We, the audience, are informed of the What and Where, and occasionally the How. Details denied to us always take the form of the crucial question Why.

Are these relationships a product of failed marriages? Untreated mental illness? Substance abuse and drug addiction? Was this outcome the product of simple opportunism and exploitation? I really don’t know. If I sat on any jury where cases like these were being decided, I’d need to let the facts speak loudest. But if we’re discussing matters of opinion only, I think secret affairs like these have been going on forever. How we stop them is anyone’s guess.

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