Sexual relationship between a teacher and a student
FX's new drama A Teacher centers around a predatory relationship between a teacher and her student. As the two become closer, Claire begins to groom Eric, and the fallout from their relationship sends shockwaves through their town. It sounds like a salacious, ripped-from-the-headlines plot, but A Teacher is not based on a true story. It's adapted from showrunner Hannah Fidell's film of the same name. While each episode begins with a boilerplate warning that includes links to sexual assault hotlines, the decision to paint Claire as a tragic figure will likely be controversial.
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Too often when I see the word, "teacher" in a headline these days, it quickly is followed by the words, "sex scandal. Sex crimes are sex crimes, and they're to quote Law and Order: SVU particularly heinous against children. Teachers who sexually assault students generally get fired, sued, arrested, or some combination of the three. But more and more frequently I read or hear about teachers and students entering into inappropriate relationships that don't necessarily involve physical contact. What happens in these grey areas? When there is no actual assault, or even overt physical contact, but just flagrant intent?
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This relationship vests considerable trust in the teacher, who, in turn, bears authority and accountability as a mentor, educator, and evaluator. The unequal institutional power inherent in this relationship heightens the vulnerability of the student and the potential for coercion. The pedagogical relationship between teacher and student must be protected from influences or activities that can interfere with learning and personal development. Whenever a teacher is or in the future might reasonably become responsible for teaching, advising, or directly supervising a student, a sexual relationship between them is inappropriate and must be avoided. In addition to creating the potential for coercion, any such relationship jeopardizes the integrity of the educational process by creating a conflict of interest and may impair the learning environment for other students.
The recent decision of the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal in the case of Fariba Mahmoodi, a student who accused her professor of sexual harassment, has once again focussed attention on a controversial issue. Mahmoodi complained to the tribunal that Donald Dutton, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, and UBC as his employer, had sexually harassed her. Sexual relationships between students and faculty are fraught with peril.