It’s as crucial for teachers and students to understand and respect personal boundaries as it is for them to grasp the fundamentals of math.
The issue of blurred boundaries arose this past week with the firing of two Model High School coaches, one Model High paraprofessional and the subsequent arrest of both coaches on sexual assault charges.
According to Floyd County Jail reports, Matthew Blanton, 28, is accused of kissing and fondling a student, and police said Daniel Brown, 30, had a sexual relationship with a Model student.
During investigations, Jamie Taylor, a paraprofessional, was also fired, but school officials declined to comment about the specifics of his case.
While the girls are 16 and 17, the age of consent is irrelevant in the student-teacher scenario.
Georgia law reads “a supervisor of another person … commits sexual assault when he or she engages in sexual contact with another person … who is enrolled in a school.”
State law forbids sexual contact between a teacher and student, and teachers are versed in the code of ethics set by the Professional Standards Commission, which also prohibits any kind of teacher-student relationships.
While specific laws are established, experts say every relationship that arises between a teacher and a student carries variables that contribute to its development.
“Teenage girls are looking for approval and acceptance, and they’re still in this age where they’re looking at people in authority for approval,” said Dr. Susan Logsden-Conradsen, a licensed clinical psychologist. “And, if there is an age or authority difference (in a relationship), then there’s a genuine issue of it being coerced.”
Logsden-Conradsen, an associate professor of psychology at Berry College, added that when someone has authority over someone else, the teacher figure always has the capacity to hold power over the student figure.
“You never know whether there is something they can hold over them, which is why it’s clearly unethical and illegal (to have a teacher-student relationship),” she said.
Dr. Alice Wiener of the Psychological Associates of Georgia in Rome agreed that teacher-student relationships involve a power imbalance.
“With these types of relationships, boundaries have been crossed, and one thing leads to another, and very quickly they’re in a relationship, and it’s not OK,” said Wiener.
Boundaries are crucial, pointed out Wiener, especially in middle school and high school when hormones start to play a more prominent role in students’ behavior.
“As far as physical boundaries, adults have to be very clear; … people that have poor boundaries in authority are setting the rules with the kids they’re teaching and mentoring,” said Wiener, adding, “They (adults) have a duty to hold themselves as an example. It’s never the children’s fault. It’s always on the shoulders of the adult in this situation.”
Teacher-student relationships can go unnoticed or unreported because of the difficult subject matter.
“Parents should make sure to talk about how it’s OK to talk about it, and that it’s not going to get them (the parents) upset,” said Logsden-Conradsen. “We have a hyper-sexualized society, but nobody wants to talk about it, … which is making people more vulnerable in general.”
Often a student does not feel comfortable talking about a relationship they are involved in because they feel ashamed, embarrassed or afraid.
Elizabeth Bell, executive director of the Sexual Assault Center of Northwest Georgia, said one of the biggest warning signs of a child that is in an inappropriate relationship is withdrawal from family members and friends.
The center has a 24-hour crisis hotline, 706-802-0580, which offers anonymity to callers. Hotline volunteers can answer questions and refer sexual assault victims to agencies or services, including counseling, which best addresses their specific case.
The Harbor House in Rome is another local service that offers a safe environment for children, ages 3 through 17, who are being interviewed about sexual assault or severe physical abuse.
Families who want Harbor House to aid in an investigation must put requests through the Department of Family and Children Services or local law enforcement.
By Elizabeth Cady, Rome News-Tribune Staff Writer