Guidelines on Avoiding Allegations of an Inappropriate Relationship with a Student

This is the first in a series of deep dives into the Professional Standards Commission’s Code of Ethics. This post will discuss the definition of student and what conduct is and is not permissible, specifically with regards to social media and outside-of-school contact. [Spoiler: the definition of student is very broad and the boundaries of impermissible conduct are very vague, leading to lots of pitfalls for educators.]

The Code of Ethics defines “student” as "any individual enrolled in the state’s public or private schools from preschool through grade 12 or any individual under the age of 18. . . . the enrollment period for a graduating student ends on August 31 of the school year of graduation." Breaking this down, “student” for purposes of the Code of Ethics is far broader than the “plain meaning” definition of a student as someone who attends school. Specifically “student” encompasses:

1. The traditional definition: any person enrolled in Georgia’s public or private schools through grade 12;

2. Drop-outs, early graduates, or children attending school out of state: any person under the age of 18, regardless of whether they are enrolled in a public or private school in Georgia;

3. Students who were held back or started school late: people 18 or older who are still enrolled in a Georgia public or private school.

Most importantly, a person remains a student through August 31 of the year in which he or she has graduated. So, a child who turns 19 years old before he or she graduates high school is still a “student” for purposes of the Code of Ethics until August 31 of that calendar year.

These definitions become most relevant when evaluating whether an educator has violated Standard 2: Conduct with Students. Besides prohibiting the obvious, such as sex with a student, Standard 2 also prohibits “soliciting, encouraging, or consummating an inappropriate written, verbal, electronic, or physical relationship with a student.” The sixty-thousand dollar question in determining a violation: what constitutes “inappropriate,” especially in the context of social media and outside-of-school contact? “Inappropriate” is not defined by the Code of Ethics. The Professional Standards Commission has not enacted a blanket prohibition on texting students, friending students on Facebook, or following students on Instragram, Tik-Tok, SnapChat, or any other analogous social media platform. Nor has it drawn any bright-line rules regarding out-of-school contact.

So what to do? Where to draw the line? Obviously, the safest course for an educator is to refrain from engaging in any social media or outside-of-school contact with any student until September 1 of the year in which the student graduates from high school. But that isn’t the real world, especially because so many educators, at least at the high school level, lead extracurricular clubs or coach sports or teams which require some level of communication and contact outside of school, if only about logistics for an event. Also, many educators, again most likely those who teach in high school, will find that students may confide in them about serious personal problems. And since helping kids is why educators are in this business (it certainly isn’t the paycheck!) it seems that some guidelines that will help educators help kids without jeopardizing that paycheck, or the license, are in order:

  1. Don’t follow students on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Tik-Tok, or Snapchat until August 31 of the year in which they graduate. Don’t even send them requests to follow. It will be really hard to justify posts on these platforms.
  2. If a student confides in you about child abuse, potential self-harm, or potential harm to others, immediately follow the protocol for mandated reporting. Do so in writing. Err on the side of caution: when in doubt, report.
  3. If and when your school notifies you that you are under investigation for an inappropriate electronic relationship with a student, never, ever delete any records. Your administration will infer the worst if you do.
  4. Even if you would never, ever solicit a student for an inappropriate sexual or physical relationship, make sure that you do not find yourself in an inappropriate emotional relationship. While you may be a shoulder for them to cry on, they are not a shoulder for you to cry on. Their moodiness is not something for you to take personally. Do not text them about the fight you had with your significant other, or ask them if they are mad at you.
  5. Avoid the appearance of favoritism. Do not give certain students “perks” or violate other educators’ classroom autonomy. Do not text a student and give him or her permission to leave a different educator’s class. Do not offer to buy certain students lunches or rides home from school. Do not gossip with students about other students. If you want to open your classroom to students during lunch hour, make sure that ALL students know they are welcome, not just a favored few.
  6. If you are trying to “mentor” a troubled student, be very, very careful about outside-of-school contact. Allowing a student to spend the night at your house, even if his or her alternative would be the streets, or the parent has given you permission, is asking for someone to misinterpret and report you.

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