Currently showing on BBC2 (and streaming on BBC iPlayer) is a drama about an English teacher who has a sexual affair with one of her students called 'A Teacher' starring Kate Mara. It's an American production and for my taste, delivers a rather moralising and shallow exploration of the topic - which is a shame because I think there is a lot of dramatic ambiguity in the subject matter. Claire Wilson, an apparently unhappily married 30 year-old English teacher, arrives at Westerbrook High School and strikes up a relationship that soon turns sexual with an 18 year-old student Eric Walker who trying, a little too hard clearly, to get his grades to get to the University of Texas. While it is obviously unethical (and illegal in the state of Texas), it is interesting to note that it is a relationship between two consenting adults who engaged in sex on an entirely consensual and voluntary basis. But I'll come back to that.
This reminded me of the time, a couple of years ago, when I was visiting New Orleans (which is in the state of Louisiana) and 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 the 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 - real life case in New Orleans, 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.
The first, 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 most 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 when the student is 16 or 17 years-old. If the student is 18, it is not illegal, but obviously unethical and therefore a 'sackable' offence.
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? ('Claire Wilson' in the tv drama got a 5-year stretch).
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. 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.
In the tv show, both the teacher's and the student's lives are ruined, but it is moot point whether that destruction has been caused by the judicial system sending the teacher to prison for 5 years and thus affording the student involved - the (so-called) victim - a lifetime of guilt and shame for engaging in a relationship that was voluntary and consensual.
Young people make mistakes, both as students and as teachers. Neither should have a criminal record and a prison sentence hanging over them for the rest of their lives because of a mistake like this.
That's my view. What's yours?
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 GTC. He now lectures on teaching and runs the award-winning social media network newteacherstalk. You can follow him on Twitter at @newteacherstalk.
You may be interested in his course in ‘The Foundations of Professionalism in Teaching’ – a 3-module course with over 4.5 hours of HD quality video presentations, additional course reading and materials, self assessment exercises and completion certificates.