Teachers must learn - a wrong will never be right

01 October 2016 - 14:36
By MEC Panyaza Lesufi

Romantic encounters between learners and teachers, whether forced or consensual, are nothing new - the stuff of school yards lore and legend.

Sexual contact between a teacher and student is not supposed to happen. But it does.

Whether it's an inappropriate touch or the forcible rape of a learner, whether with young pupils or with teenagers on the edge of adulthood, such contact is a flagrant, and illegal, breach of trust.

In the last months and years, a few cases have revealed different kinds of encounters - A 45-year-old teacher accused of having an affair with his 17-year-old learner and impregnating her, and their sexual escapades going viral on social media; a high school girl accusing her teacher of fondling her; young pupils who say their teacher repeatedly molested them and even reports of teachers having sex with learners in class, their houses, cars and men's bathroom at the school.

Recently, the Gauteng department of education has dealt with a case of a Vosloorus, Ekurhuleni, teacher who was allegedly caught having sex with a 17-year-old matric pupil in a school block.

There could be stark differences among these cases - the ages of the victims, the locations and the kinds of schools - but each of the accused offenders was a respected teacher who was trusted by students. In high school, the line can become clouded, and learners and teachers can get too cozy.

With older learners, the dynamic is more complex, involving, perhaps, a teenager's crush or a teacher's flirtation.

What a time we live in. These cases and scores of others reflect a growing public consciousness of improper sexual relations between teachers and learners.

It is not such an easy issue to debate. There are those who say a sexual relationship between a student and teacher jeopardises the integrity of the educational process by creating a conflict of interest and may lead to an inhospitable learning environment for other students.

Some are questioning where romance ends and harassment begins. Painting all these behaviours with the same brush sends a damaging message to learners and sets the stage for hypocrisy and distortion of the truth.

Others even say that some teenagers are, biologically speaking, sexually mature and therefore pretending that this kind of thing won't happen if we simply punish it severely enough, is delusional.

Sexual contact between teachers and students is, of course, common, and teachers strongly condemn colleagues who overstep the line.

At any given time, education authorities in Gauteng are investigating several allegations of abuse by educators. Many more never become known because the victims are too scared to tell education authorities, their parents or the police.

Some people are well aware that a false accusation can scar or ruin a career and take measures to avoid trouble.

The truth is: teachers are in a position of enormous power. They can't get involved with children with no experience. Learners aren't in control.

Some teachers are quick to point out that, many times, it is the learner who initiates a relationship outside the classroom.

In some cases, there is a growing awareness that even though a relationship may be consensual, there is a power imbalance, so it could be construed as harassment.

Indeed, some say there are changing demographics in the school yards - there are older pupils in high school, meaning that there are learners who are mature. And they point to relationships that have turned out to be long-lasting and meaningful.

For me, at the heart of the issue is not the age of the pupil or learner but the question of power. The teacher has control over the learner in class, creating the potential for the teacher to exploit the learner, or the learner to blackmail the teacher.

For us at the Gauteng department of education, the policy is clear. Sexual relations between learners and teachers are prohibited. That is why scores of teachers have been dismissed from their jobs and/or hit with criminal charges for allegedly taking sexual liberties with students.

It's just never appropriate for adults to be sexual with kids, either verbally or physically. They're in a position of trust. They're in a position of unequal power. Some people may say the student consented, and maybe they did. But maybe they felt they had no choice.

Painful as these episodes may be for the victims and their families and the schools involved, it's much better that the stories surface so the facts can be sifted from the flying dirt.

I don't care if the perpetrator is a 23-year-old teacher who falls in love with a sophisticated 17-year-old girl, or a 56-year-old administrator who reaches out and grabs a 14-year-old girl - wrong is wrong.

Violating the teacher-learner relationship for sexual gratification can never be rationalised or excused. There is no one much more depraved than a teacher who uses a learner for sexual purposes.

It violates the whole ethic of education.

lLesufi is Gauteng MEC for education