A blanket ban may be a blunt instrument, but it can be appropriate and effective when the conduct it seeks to extinguish is unconscionable. This is the case with measures in Victorian schools that ban teachers from having personal relationships with students.
These rules have been in place for the past 12 years under the code of conduct laid down by the Victorian Institute of Teaching – the independent statutory authority that regulates the state’s teachers. Teachers must be registered with the authority before they can be employed in a school or in early childhood education and care.
Under the code, teachers are banned from having “a sexual relationship with a learner” and will violate their professional relationship with a student if they engage in “sexual misconduct which includes behaviour; physical contact; speech or other communication of a sexual nature; inappropriate touching; grooming type behaviour; and voyeurism”.
Teachers who breach this aspect of the code can be deregistered. The ban is designed to keep children safe at school and, along with the potential sanctions for breaches, it is entirely appropriate. As the code says, “teachers hold a unique position of influence and trust that should not be violated or compromised”.
Now, as The Age revealed this week, concerns that such a unique position of trust could be used by a perpetrator to groom an existing student for post-school abuse have led to the first revision of the code of conduct for more than a decade.
The revised code, due to come into effect at the start of the next school term, bans teachers from having “a sexualised relationship” with a former student within two years of the student completing their senior secondary schooling. Teachers found to have violated this rule could have their teaching registration suspended, even if the student is over 18.
Education Minister James Merlino, in a foreword to the new code, writes: “We want every learner to feel safe and supported each and every day of their education journey.” He said the recent Betrayal of Trust Inquiry and Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse had “dramatically changed the public expectations of teacher conduct and behaviour”.
But changed public expectations become more complex when safety concerns for students, and the policing of teacher conduct, extend beyond the “education journey” and into post-school relationships between consenting adults. As a means of deterring perpetrators who might groom children for post-school abuse, a revised code is to be welcomed.
The extension of a firm boundary acknowledges that the power differential between student and teacher does not automatically evaporate the moment the student finishes school. The two-year ban has been adopted from the measures put in place for psychologists and their former patients.
But the blanket nature of the new measures should be re-examined. It is not implausible that a 24-year-old teacher and a 19-year-old former student, who had no previous personal relationship, might run into each other at a bar and strike up a consensual sexual relationship. Should that teacher face deregistration? Should that relationship be considered unconscionable?
The Victorian Institute of Teaching consulted widely before adopting the new code, but teachers remain concerned that it “doesn’t allow for grey areas”. The Australian Education Union, in a submission to the institute, says that if teachers are to embrace the code there must be “an appropriate balance between the set of standards for professional behaviour and the political, industrial and civil rights of teachers”.
This is a reasonable concern. There could be room in the new code for a more nuanced approach that considers matters case by case and allows for the complexity of adult relationships. Paramount, though, in any such system is that it be unambiguously skewed towards protection of the child.
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