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What if the sexual abuser is a teacher?

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by Iris Mounsey

In 1997, Mary Kay Le Tourneau, an American teacher, made world news when she was turned in to authorities to be tried for statutory rape of 13-year-old male minor – her student, Vili Fualaau. In 1998, a Vincentian secondary school teacher, was jailed for 25 years (or more) for two counts of unlawful sexual knowledge of a female student.

Though these accounts of student sexual abuse get into the media infrequently, concern about this unscrupulous and immoral practice is raised worldwide.{{more}}

As an educator with nearly three decades of classroom experience, and with five years as an administrator in the school system, I’ve seen and heard enough to be seriously alarmed at the prevalence of this serious breach of responsibilities in a caregiver and authority figure. Exploitative sex in schools occurs with those of heterosexual preferences as well as those of homosexual inclinations and is generally committed on the school grounds in what can be seen as legitimate school-related activities. While school sexual exploitation may involve very young students whose age would thus place the abusers in the category of sexual deviance termed pedophilia; it mostly involves adolescent students who have attained the age of legal consent.

The question of teacher-student sexual relations must therefore be seen and addressed from legal and ethical perspectives. It is obvious that sex with a minor is wrong, but what if the school child is 15 years and one day old (I deliberately use the word “child” here since a 15- year-old cannot vote or legally consume alcohol, things that adults can do). Does the wrongness of teacher-student sexual relations dissipate into thin air in this situation? I want to posit that it does not. While it might not be wrong in a juridical sense, from an ethical viewpoint it is reprehensible.

Psychiatrist and sexual expert, Roland C. Summit takes a dissenting position on the notion of consent. In an article for Child Abuse and Neglect, he argues, that “no child has equal power to say ‘No’ to a parental figure or to anticipate the consequences of sexual involvement with a caretaker.”

Since the child (even one who has reached the age of consent) in this uneven relationship cannot be liable, then the problem must be viewed as an abuse of power. So how does the abuser wield power? – threats with grades, among other things, and promises of good things to come. One abuser I encountered, made the naïve adolescents believe they were chosen to replace his wife when he divorced her. Then there were the pretensions towards academic attention or towards giving counsel in times of distress. And the adolescent most frequently targeted was the ‘troubled teen’ or one going through a difficult period, like my friend who was being seduced by her teacher when she was most vulnerable – as she grieved for her mother who had just died days ago!

The question must therefore be asked: what just reward should a caring society meet out to those who abuse power entrusted to them in this fashion?

The effect of such exploitation has been documented in numerous studies. Educator, David Finkelhor, notes that children in these relationships are traumatized and experience the same sense of shame and betrayal as in a case of incest, because a pseudo-parental relationship has been sexualized.

The director of the London Family Court Clinic, Peter Jaffe, shows how seriously detrimental are the long term effects. He says, “Their suffering is enormous. Child sexual abuse can lead to a range of problems including alcoholism, drug use and teen suicide. Years later, victims may still exhibit dysfunction, a deep mistrust of other people and anxiety.”

Here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, we dare not empathize with those who cross the line. Neither do we dare exonerate a person because he or she is such a nice person, or because they may belong to ‘elitist’ society, or because they have friends in the right places. Parents of SVG must have the courage to stand up for principle and do the thing that is right. When you sell out your son’s or daughter’s honour to protect a criminal you are enabling the perpetrator to do worse in the future, and you will NEVER be able to look anyone in the eye again. And least of all your child! Parents of SVG must have the courage to recognize that issues that harm their children affect the society as a whole.

So, to the crucial question, Should a school sexual abuser retain a place in the teaching profession? I say, NO. If this teacher was involved with a minor he/she is a scholarly criminal. If the abused child is above the age of consent, this teacher is still a destroyer of the fabric of our society and should have no hand in moulding our children during the formative years. They should not be seen anywhere near children in any guise or fashion, – not as: heads of departments, principals, QAT’s, senior teachers, lab assistants, education officers, relief staff, you name it!

To retain them as staff or administrators, when they have been accused (with reasonable evidence) of such unprofessional and grossly unethical conduct is to give them enabling power – a carte blanc (so to speak). And we all know that the enabler is as bad as the thief! To ‘simply pass the trash around’ by transferring the predator to another school is not a solution – it is an enabling of the beast! And it sends a single message of unprincipledness, callous indifference to the call for justice, and flagrant disregard for the rights of the child.

School sexual abuse has been with us for far too long and it is time that it be addressed as an item – not something we infer as we read the Education Act or the Teachers’ Code. It is time that:

1. The idea that the teacher is a caregiver, and parent figure who is therefore specifically prohibited from sexual relations with the adolescent in his or her care should be crafted into the Education Act, The Teacher’s Code and other legal frameworks that seek to protect the child from exploitation. And this regardless of age. Such sexual contact is a breach in the teacher’s responsibilities as an authority figure.

2. That it be considered a legal duty of the school administrator to report every complaint of sexual violations of students by school employees directly to the police, in the case when the child is below the age on consent, and to Public Service Commission (PSC) when above the age of consent.

3. That a disciplinary body be created by the PSC to investigate the allegations of sexual abuse of students 15 to 18 years of age, and to recommend appropriate disciplinary measures.

One teacher boasted, “She’s 16 now. Let me see who can stop us.” He and all abusers can be stopped. Stopped from preying on the vulnerability and trust of the Nation’s Best Asset – its future human resource – its young who should be busy getting an education and just growing up!

But, to stop the vultures, St. Vincent and the Grenadines has to take a stand to protect its own, its future, its young – be they male or female.

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