The best teachers are not only outstanding educators, but they also care deeply about their students. However, it is essential for teachers to keep strict professional boundaries between themselves and their students, or they could face serious legal and license issues. Even an innocent offer to give a student a ride home after school or accepting a friend request on social media could lead to problems. Below you can learn more about the kinds of situations that could cause you to lose your teaching license and when to enlist the help of a professional license defense attorney.
Understanding Boundary Violations
For teachers, a professional boundary is simply an acceptable standard of behavior between a teacher and their students. Teachers must avoid abusing their power in any way. While often we think of boundary violations as egregious acts like sexual misconduct, non-sexual actions can also qualify. In a nutshell, any interaction you have with a student that harms you or them or diminishes trust and respect in your relationship could be eligible as a boundary violation.
If you are a new teacher or a teacher who is close to your students in age, you may be more susceptible to boundary violations. In part, if you are young, your students are more likely to see you as their peers, making it easier for boundaries to be crossed. A teacher who doubles as a student’s coach or club leader is more susceptible because they often spend more time with the student and come to know the student well, which can result in a close connection that can slip beyond a professional relationship.
Common Boundary Violations
While caring about your students is often part of what makes a great teacher, you always want to avoid any behavior that could violate a professional boundary.
Below are some examples of common boundary violations.
Communication violations can occur if you discuss the inappropriate subject matter with a student. Inappropriate subject matter includes sharing any personal information that won’t benefit them, asking questions that are personal or in a sexual nature, or even talking with a student about a problem they’re having rather than referring them to a mental health professional.
Emotional violations go hand-in-hand with communication violations and can include a wide variety of actions that are not appropriate for a student-teacher relationship. For example, if you find yourself behaving like a friend, therapist, or parent to a student, you could be approaching a boundary violation.
Additionally, showing favoritism to a specific student or lashing out inappropriately at a student during a time of frustration is an example of crossing an emotional boundary. Always remember that your student is your student, and you are there to educate them. If they experience problems, refer them to the school guidance counselor or another professional who can help.
Physical violations include any inappropriate physical contact with a student. Engaging in sexual contact with a student is an obvious example, but even something as simple as hugging a student in a classroom with the door closed is a problem. Physical violations frequently intersect with relationship violations, including any romantic or sexual relationship you maintain with a current or former student, including flirting.
Other examples of romantic violations could include entering a student’s home when a parent is not present or driving a student in your vehicle. Before you connect with a student in any physical way, ask yourself whether you would do the same thing in public. If you wouldn’t, don’t do it.
Social Media violations are becoming more and more common as technology becomes increasingly prevalent. One typical example, teachers run into is communicating with students on social media that have not been approved by their school. Not getting approval from the school can be an even bigger issue if you post inappropriate content on your social media page. To avoid this type of boundary violation, always make sure you know your school’s social media policy and don’t violate it. It is also inadvisable to be “friends” with your students on social media websites.
Text Messaging. It is inappropriate to text with your students in most instances. If there is any communication via text messages, the parents should be made aware, and the communication should be limited to specific academic issues and the sharing of information about specific school-based events.
Power violations include any situation where you abuse your position of authority to harm a student in any way. Power violations include using your relationship with the student to punish or reward them or taking advantage of a student’s connections to benefit personally. Punishments that are not within school boundaries or regulations count towards power violations. If this student feels picked on or is called out often, you may be violating your terms as a professional.
Financial violations can happen whenever you spend too much of your own money, even if this is for your classroom. Lending money to students, or asking them for money are also examples of financial violations.
How to Recognize Boundary Violations
Sometimes it is clear when a boundary violation is on the horizon, but teachers often find themselves in unexpected situations or gray areas. Any case where your self-interest is being prioritized over the student’s well-being is worth thinking about.
If you feel a relationship with a student is about to cross a line, consult with your supervisor or principal about it. If a student continues to disclose personal information after you’ve advised them to visit the school counselor, the principal may be able to step in and offer support.
If you notice that you are treating anyone student differently than others, or that you behave differently when you are alone with a student than you would if a supervisor or parent was present, these could be red flags.
Likewise, if your colleagues have called your behavior into question or are concerned about another teacher’s behavior, it’s a good idea to stop and reflect if it matches your own. Reviewing your school’s policies and the policies for conduct laid out by your licensing board can also be helpful.
In general, make sure you are always prioritizing the student’s needs and not your own, and think about the consequences of any behavior before you act can help.
When to Seek Legal Help
If you are a teacher facing disciplinary action because of a boundary violation, getting help from a qualified licensing attorney is in your best interest. Because these cases can be complicated, a lawyer with experience can be your greatest asset.
Scott J Harris has the knowledge and experience to defend your license and your career. He has worked with many teachers over the years to get a positive outcome for their cases, and he may be able to help you, too. Get in touch today for a free consultation at 323-794-0701.
This blog is meant to be informational. It is not meant to be all-encompassing legal advice. If you are facing a situation involving your professional license, seek counsel from a licensed attorney.