by: Rebecca Kling
As a teacher who works with children in middle and high school, I understand the relationships and intimacy which can develop between teachers and students. I’ve worked with some of my students for over a decade, seen them grow into confident young adults, and watched them go off to college. Some stay in touch, and some cross my mind from time to time as I wonder what they’re up to today. I hope I do a good job steering them in through tumultuous childhoods and teenage years, and aim to leave them better people than they were when the first came to work with me. I’m also a theatre instructor who generally sees my students once a week, so I have limited impact, but I can still dream of making a difference; I know how powerfully my teaches — even those I saw infrequently — affected my development into an adult.
All these thoughts crossed my mind as I heard that the Arkansas Supreme Court had struck down a law 4-3 which forbade teachers from engaging in sexual activity with students who were under the age of 21. I feel pretty strongly that behavior outside of one’s employment shouldn’t be a factor in how they’re viewed as an employee. I hate the stories of teachers who are fired for having drunk pictures show up on Facebook, and I think drug screening for applicants is inherently unjust and offensive. For me, as a transgender lesbian, it’s all too easy to imagine my “personal life” being viewed as offensive or unacceptable when it comes to my professional life. Indeed, I was fired from a teaching position for being trans, which has nothing to do with my ability to teach a class.
So, my gut reaction is that, yes, if the relationship (in this case between an 18 year old student and her 36 year old teacher) is legal outside of school, it should be legal in school.
Upon further reflection, however, teacher-student relationships create an inherent power dynamic. Sexual activity between minors and adults is forbidden (at least in part) because there’s an inherent imbalance of power. It is impossible for a child to maturely provide consent to an adult in the way two adults (or, arguably, two children) are able to do.
But these lines are arbitrary. No one thinks that a flip is switched at exactly 16 that makes people able to drive, or at exactly 18 that makes people able to vote or smoke, or at exactly 21 that makes people able to drink. Societies create arbitrary lines in the hope that – for the majority of the population – those lines will do a pretty good job of keeping the “too young” on one side and the “old enough” on the other. Yet teacher/student is a more clearcut relationship. You stop being a student when you graduate, not when you reach a specific age. So should a teacher/student sexual relationship — illegal and generally agreed to be a bad thing at 17 years, 11 months, and 30 days — suddenly be acceptable at 18?
From the three dissenting justices: “For the majority to say that such authority vanishes when a student turns 18 ignores the realities of the student-teacher relationship,” Brown wrote. “I cannot agree that a teacher has a right protected by our constitution to engage in sexual contact with a student.”
Many students turn 18 while in their senior year of high school (myself included) they’re judged “too young” in one way — they’re still in high school school, a place for children — but “old enough” for lots of things as far as legality is concerned. I remember realizing, after I turned 18, that I no longer needed to take permission slips home for my parents to sign. When we went scuba diving in the school pool (which was awesome, by the way) I took the form, signed it myself and handed it right back. I was legally allowed to make that decision, even though I was still a student as far as the school was concerned; I had to obey the period bells, get to class on time, and so on.
And yet I keep returning to the fact that we judge people — rightly or wrongly — to be adults at 18. There isn’t a case-by-case test or a subjective panel or a medical diagnosis. On one’s 18th birthday, they’re an adult. Which, to me, means they should be allowed to sleep with their teacher. Even if it makes me uncomfortable. Even if I question the inherent power dynamic of such a relationship. Even if the school gets really worried about potential liability. They’re an adult. Treat them like one.