Schools are supposed to be safe sanctuaries where students can learn from their teachers. But sadly that’s not always the case as seen by the near-record number of public-school teachers in both Japan and the United States accused of sexual misconduct with their students. Although the laws regarding the matter differ between the two nations, certain similarities emerge.
Japan reported the second-highest number of cases of sexual misconduct at 273 for fiscal 2019, according to a survey by the education ministry. That was only nine less than the record for fiscal year 2018. In the United States, nearly 3.5 million students between 8th and 11th grade reported physical sexual conduct from either a teacher or coach, according to the Children’s Center for Psychiatry, Psychology and Related Services.
Most experts agree that the alarming surge in Japan and the U.S. is largely the result of the prevalence of social media and text messaging that provide an open gateway to sexual predators. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat didn’t exist 15 years ago, nor did cell phones belong to so many young people. The combination is ideal for improper relationships out-of-sight of parents and principals.
School officials are under enormous pressure to put an end to the scandals, but their hands are severely tied by what they can do. Several years ago, for example, Missouri attempted to prohibit teachers from having private online conversations with students. But a Cole County Circuit 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 because off-campus speech by students on social media or texting is protected from interference. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit recently held that public schools can’t punish students for what they post off campus, setting the stage for an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court for a final ruling.
Japan tried to protect students when 11 prefectures and three cities in 2015 banned all communications between teachers and their students through email, messaging applications and phones after the school day is over. But it had unintended consequences by undermining the bond between teachers and students that is essential for learning. An updated teacher licensing database proposed by the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology two years ago also did little to solve the problem. That’s not at all surprising. Even the most carefully designed policy is apt to fail because accusing a teacher in Japan violates a host of powerful social conventions.
Yet there is a bit of hope at least for students in the United States who have been sexually abused in the past. The Child Victims Act, which was approved in January 2019, permits victims up to the age of 55 to get financial relief. Until then, they had only until the age of 23 to do so. Nothing, however, can compensate them for the psychological trauma the abuse caused.
The reality is that young people in the throes of raging hormones are subject to exploitation, especially by those they look up to. Their naivety makes them ideal victims. At the same time, there is far less stigma attached today to nudity and sexual images than in the past. As a result, what used to be considered scandalous is today considered “cool.”
Draconian laws have the potential to destroy the relationship 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 in the hope it will prevent sexual misconduct throws the baby out with the bathwater. Instead, what is sorely needed are clear boundaries that protect students without destroying their trust.
Walt Gardner taught for 28 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District. He blogs about education at theedhed.com.
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