SPUSD needs clearer student-teacher boundaries

Illustration by Kate Rogers
Staff Illustrator

South Pasadena High School thrives on the relationship between community and school. School is integrated into so much of students’ lives: we run into our teachers at the grocery store, we go to school with our teacher’s kids, and we spend hours in after-school tutoring sessions. Naturally, relationships form between students and teachers or other school staff that operate in such close proximity.

“I feel like [my teacher] got a Snapchat for educational purposes, but it’s stretching a little far. He had viewed my Snapchat story, so I blocked him from looking at it. It felt like it was crossing a line. I don’t really know where the line stands, because he had good intentions,” said an anonymous sophomore.  

Student-teacher relationships can often be a positive force; a big part of feeling safe on a school campus means having a modicum of trust with adults on campus. Principal Janet Anderson has encouraged students to identify three trusted adults on campus. Confiding in teachers can make students feel at ease, especially when a student doesn’t have other adult figures in their life. Besides, in a purely practical sense, it is important for students to maintain good relationships with teachers in order to score letters of recommendation and citizenship grades.

Student-teacher interactions at South Pasadena often feel as if they are operating in some sort of grey area. Some teachers invite students over to their homes, offer advice, or give out their personal phone numbers. Teachers aren’t parents, or therapists, or friends, but regular adults who are operating on their best judgment. Furthermore, it is important to remember the power dynamic ever-present in a school setting: a teacher is in a position of power, and a student is not. A close student-teacher relationship should be one-sided.  In a game of he-said, she-said, a teacher automatically has more credibility. Thus, it is especially important for both students and teachers to be aware of what is considered inappropriate behavior.

Social media blurs these lines even further. On platforms like Facebook, adults and young people often co-mingle. It makes sense to be friends with your teacher so they can post to the class’s Facebook group, but social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram are less acceptable. These platforms are a more personal reflection of a student’s life––a space for peers to socialize with one another.

The neighboring Los Angeles Unified School District handles staff and student relationships very differently by removing ambiguity in school policy. As the second-largest school district in the country, they’ve had their fair share of scandal involving teachers abusing students. The district has implemented strict rules about what teachers can and cannot do. The “Code of Conduct with Students” document accessible online from the LAUSD Ethics office specifically outlines situations teachers should avoid putting themselves and students in. For example, teachers are advised against “communicating with students, in writing, by phone/email/electronically, via the Internet, or in person, at any time, for purposes that are not specifically school related.” Strict rules like these provided by the district are a preventative measure to protect students. They eliminate the grey area and need for judgment calls.

Twice a year, LAUSD staff members complete training on what is considered appropriate professional conduct. SPUSD lacks this type of annual training.

South Pasadena High School isn’t clean of the scandal that these rules result from. A former track coach was sentenced in 2016 for molesting and sexually harassing a minor, and the administration was sued for negligence following. Rumors of sexual contact between certain students and teachers are widely accepted among students.

Nearly all teachers can be trusted to rely on their own good judgment. To most, it is easy to differentiate between what is appropriate and what is not in the school setting. Like any attempts at abuse prevention, we can’t weed out the “bad apples” only. There needs to be policy available to, and discussed with, students and staff alike. It may be assumed that standards for student-teacher relationships are “common knowledge,” but in reality, many will not understand nor assume the same standards. For example, different teachers have different ideas about how to handle interactions with students on social media: some friend their students only after graduation, some are accessible 24/7 through Messenger, and some avoid social media altogether. Our district needs to decide which types of interactions are appropriate for teachers and students, and which are not.

Most SPHS students can recite the A-G requirements, but don’t know how to address the uneasiness they feel when a teacher views their Snapchat story. We need to hold our school to ethical standards as high as the academic standards we pride ourselves in.


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