Teacher-student interaction needs boundaries


Special To The Japan Times

By banning all communication between teachers and their students through email, messaging applications and phones after the school day is over, 11 prefectures and three cities in Japan are throwing the baby out with the bath water. That’s the lesson many school districts in the United States have learned to their chagrin.

In the wake of 781 sex crimes committed by school employees against students in 2014, an investigation by the former chief of staff of the U.S. Department of Education found that 36 percent of teachers used social media to initiate or carry out their crimes.

Contrary to widespread belief, the teachers were male and female, as well as single and married. They were math teachers, choir directors, football coaches, and teachers of the year. Furthermore, the victims were male (38 percent) as well as female (62 percent).

As a result, it’s tempting to ban all contact between teachers and students after the school bell has rung on the assumption that it’s better to be safe than sorry. But that policy would not pass legal muster and would have other unintended consequences.

Several years ago, Missouri attempted to prohibit teachers from having private online conversations with students. But a Cole County Circuit Court judge immediately blocked the law from taking effect on the grounds that it would have a “chilling effect” on free-speech rights. Since then outright bans have been shot down in other states by the courts.

Equally important from an educational point of view, the draconian law would have destroyed the bond that exists between teachers and students. For students from broken homes, their teachers often are the only adults they can confide in. Depriving them of this lifeline would undermine all other efforts to help them.

Social media can also be an important tool for reinforcing teaching and learning. In fact, several highly successful charter schools in the U.S. require their teachers to be available online to help students after hours by providing them with smartphones. The question is where to draw the line? As with other controversial issues, the devil is always in the details. But it can be done.

In the mid-1980s, the Los Angeles Unified School District faced a legal crisis when an administrator failed to inform the proper authorities about a child who appeared physically abused. It ordered all schools to establish a workshop to explain the rules regarding mandated reporting. It was successful because teachers knew exactly what was expected of them.

Teachers have been hired to nurture and protect their students. Once they are properly trained, they should be allowed to use their professional judgment in determining what constitutes appropriate interaction with their students. Those who violate this trust need to be promptly removed from the classroom.

If Japan is anything like the U.S., where 95 percent of teenagers have consistent online access and 81 percent of them use some kind of social media, it’s futile to try to fight technology. Instead, schools need to provide teachers with a set of clear guidelines followed by ongoing training.

There’s no way to totally protect students from tech-related scandals, but this approach is the best option.

Walt Gardner writes the Reality Check blog for Education Week in the U.S.

  • etchasketch

    Ugh, hell no. Who the hell wants to take their work home with them? Teachers are overworked as is. They don’t need a text message on the weekend about next week’s book report.

    • Internet Terracotta Tiger


  • Internet Terracotta Tiger

    Having been damaged by a creep of a singing teacher protected by a church choir between ages 11 to 13, and never having exchanged a single email with the best teachers of my life, I don’t see anything wrong with the no e-mail rule. I was a teacher myself for a few years, and my email communications were limited to receiving late assignments from kids who couldn’t finish on time or pay attention in class (the school was a bit lax on late reports etc. as it was for-profit). In other words, my email availability wasn’t necessary for kids who valued finishing on time or accepting 10% marks off for handing an assignment late the next class day, which is how the real world works.

    If kids want to consult teachers on personal problems, they can approach them after class in a safe protected school environment. Old school approach is best. No online relationships necessary.

    • Ben

      i don’t want to ask you to revisit any memories of abuse, so please ignore this if uncomfortable, but i’m wondering if your experience was enabled by email? if incidents happen regardless of social media availability, yet email contacts can be a source of stability in students who are going through problems, i wonder if banning it outright would do harm while not achieving the good it’s attempting.

      • Internet Terracotta Tiger

        Thank you for the kindness of your response and for your question. As I’m approaching 40, the abuse was well before the use of email.

        It sounds like you and many other posters here support the use of email for assisting students with difficulties, which is commendable. The question is cost vs. benefit.

        The problem of course concerns the small to very small minority of teachers who may not understand boundaries and for whom email is a danger not just to potential victims but also to themselves. Will “written guidelines” accomplish anything? I went to a school with a guy named David Dewees (easily searchable) who ended up committing suicide as a teacher related to charges from questionable emails. He may not have meant any harm, I don’t know all the facts, and sure it’s an extreme example. But if the old school approach, plus say a limited-contact website updating homework and lesson plans (as at my old university) is not sufficient, I think there should be a strong case why not given the toxicity of risks from unfortunate incidents or even misunderstandings.

      • Ben

        i agree that we need to consider cost vs benefit. at the moment i’m thinking that social media doesn’t make abuse more common, if anything it helps reduce it as it leaves evidence of any abuse which can then be immediately halted. i think from your experience and also others there was clearly plenty of abuse before the advent of email. now that students can show parents and other teachers hey this is what this teacher texted me, isn’t that preferable?

        thanks also for your reply to my other comment, good point about related church abuse.

  • Ben

    it’s a very good point and well made. no-one can say that without social media these incidents would not have occurred, and even worse, without social media and the evidence from it these incidents might have continued longer or gone unpunished.
    also here in japan where divorce means completely losing a male role model and the guidance that provides, i’ve seen for myself how beneficial it is for kids to at least have some form of replacement in a male (usually home room) teacher, and even if they only need after-hours contact once or twice a year, just having that connection must be an enormous relief.
    reasonable restrictions and guidelines seem the way to go.

    • Internet Terracotta Tiger

      “without social media and the evidence from it these incidents might have continued longer or gone unpunished”

      Big thumbs-up on that. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the rise in social media/internet and the spotlight on church coverups happened at roughly the same time. Mainstream media was usually well-behind or MIA in many cases. Good to read your comment.