Sunday Mornings with Rania: Teacher-Student Relationships

It’s actually been called an “epidemic….” We’re talking about inappropriate relationships between students and teachers and unfortunately, across the board, they are on the rise.

In the last week alone, here are two leading stories:

Tad Cummins manhunt: Tennessee Kidnapping Suspect Researched Teen Marriage, Police Say). Cummins is a 50-year-old teacher who allegedly singled out his 15-year-old student, Elizabeth Thomas, groomed her, entered an inappropriate relationship with her, abducted her and plans to marry her. Thomas was last seen March 13. Cummins is believed to be armed and dangerous.

Teacher Can’t Stop Smiling after Being Accused of Having Sexual Relations with Teen. This Austin, Texas case involves Sarah Fowlkes, a 27-year-old anatomy teacher at Lockhart High School, who is accused of having sexual contact with her 17-year-old student.

While we are seeing these types of cases pop up coast-to-coast, sadly, Texas leads them all with soaring statistics. According to state figures, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) opened 141 investigations in the 2009- 2010 fiscal year (beginning Sept. 1, 2009). During the same time period in 2014-2015, the number of cases jumped up to 188 and to 122 cases when looking at the same time period in 2015-2016, an increase of 57 percent. In 2016, the number of cases continued to increase reaching 222.

Pennsylvania is in second with 45 cases.

So why is this happening and why are we seeing such a rise in female teacher predators, specifically? Teachers who are caught up in inappropriate relationships with middle or high school students?

There are a few reasons that we can identify:

  • Society doesn’t know what to do with female predators. When looking at the reaction, society members used words like “lucky” and “dream” when asked to define the male student victim. Simply put, we see this not as a predatory action by the teacher but as a stroke of luck for the young male student. It’s shocking.
  • These women don’t understand the crime. When asked, these teachers tend to define the relationship as a simple boyfriend/girlfriend relationship. They don’t see the harm and can’t comprehend the issue.
  • These women tend to have a history of relating to others through physical means.
  • They are in need of love; they are lonely.
  • They have easy access to their targets including hours at school, time after school and possibly additional time through tutoring and other activities.
  • Social media has opened doors for these teachers to reach out and talk to their targets, learn about their personal lives and make personal connections that parents are unaware of.
  • These teachers may have been abused as children or have an addiction to pornography.

So now what?

Until society can find a way to weed out potential predators before they attack, it’s up to us to protect ourselves and our children.

  • Talk to your children about appropriate teacher-student relationships. I know you’re thinking, really? Isn’t that a bit extreme? No. It takes only a few minutes to speak to your children in an age-appropriate manner about proper healthy boundaries with all adults. Reminders include a discussion on boundaries: students can and should talk to their teachers, coaches and counselors about personal issues. That’s okay. But let’s take it a step further. When you have teachers, coaches or counselors sharing personal information with a student, that’s a red flag.
  • Remind your child, if he/she is feeling uncomfortable about any attention from any adult, to tell you.
  • Encourage your child to report bad behaviors, don’t be afraid.
  • Be aware of your child’s online life, their networks and who they are speaking to.
  • Teach your children to trust their instincts.
  • Continue talking to your child about this and any other issue that pertains to their public safety all year.

Legislative Update:

The 2017 legislative session found senators working hard to pass a bill addressing inappropriate teacher-student relationships. Senate Bill 7 punishes (including facing criminal charges ranging from a Class A misdemeanor to a state jail felony) school principals and superintendents who fail to report teachers with a history of inappropriate romantic or sexual relationships with students. Teachers will automatically lose their license and will be registered as a sex offender. Teacher training regarding proper boundaries was also introduced. And while the bill is expanded even further in the House version, the final result would expand TEA’s investigative authority from intra-district to inter-district relationships. This Bill, which was introduced by Senator Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, passed unanimously in the Senate.

While this is such a terrible topic, it only speaks of terrible teachers – and there are not many. Generally speaking, teachers, in my book, are as important as first responders and doctors. They work hard; they spend their time, money and life investing in our children. They are the best of the best. But when you come across a bad one – and truly, it’s few and far between – it can have a tremendously negative impact on your child, one that can last a lifetime.

Talk to your children, get to know your teachers and school faculty, be involved and get connected. As always, with each passing day and week, I grow to love my own children more and more and know you feel the same way toward your own. Working together, let’s do all we can keep to keep our young ones safe.

About the author

Executive Director of Crime Stoppers of Houston