Friday, July 6, 2012

Teacher/student sex

I spent four happy years (9th to 12th grades) at the Horace Mann School in New York, and was startled by a New York Times article in June titled - "Prep School Predators: The Horace Mann School's Secret History of Sexual Abuse." The author, Amos Kamil, had researched the piece for more than a year and had interviewed more the 100 former students and teachers.

The article describes how several teachers in the 1980s and 1990s were well known for "hitting" on students. The article discusses in detail three who preyed on boys. One, possibly two, committed suicide after finally being dismissed. But the sexual exploitation had gone on for many years. It's hard to believe that the administration was unaware of what was happening. The author himself was invited to the home of Inslee Clark, the head of school, and, although underage, was given alcohol, at a small dinner that included one of the teachers known for hitting on boys.

In the world of organizational ethics there's a saying: if the CEO isn't "chief ethics officer" as well as "chief executive officer," don't waste your time on organizational ethics. Leaders set the moral tone of organizations by what they practice, not what they preach. Clark's alcohol-laced dinner suggests that he was setting an atmosphere that tolerated what in the medical world is called "boundary violations."

There's a structural similarity between the doctor/patient relationship and the teacher/student relationship. We give doctors and teachers authority and respect for helping us cultivate our capacities for health and wisdom. We expect them to focus on the needs of their patients and students, and to put their own private desires into the background. Sexual interest isn't a violation of that trust. Overt behavior is.

Neither I nor my best friends from high school had any knowledge of teacher/student sexual relationships, but we were at Horace Mann 25 years before the period the article discusses. But Tek Young Lin, a new teacher in our days, now 88, acknowledged that he had sexual relationships with students in the 1960s and 1970s. Tek was a Buddhist and a beloved English teacher. I remember him as a charismatic, profoundly educative person. The candor I remember him for was reflected in the interview he did with the New York Times:
 "in those days, it was very spontaneous and casual, and it did not seem really wrong...if I had in any way harmed them, hurt them, I am truly, truly sorry. I hope if they have been hurt, they will overcome that hurt, and I should be very happy to help in any way I can." 
 The fact that a beloved teacher could also be an exploiter is consistent with comments made on this blog by former patients of physicians who'd lost their licenses for boundary violations. It's clear that teachers, like doctors, who violate boundaries with some, may provide superb education to others.

An article in yesterday's New York Times reports that alumni are unhappy with what to them seems like a "cold" reaction on the part of current leadership. I'd felt the same way. The disappointing public comments probably reflect the misguided legal advice the school administration was given - to say nothing that could be used against the school in court. This is what lawyers used to advise physicians in situations of bad outcomes. That defensive approach is now seen to be (a) inhumane and (b) bad strategy for preventing malpractice litigation.

I take three lessons from these unhappy stories about my high school. First, we humans are open to a wide range of feelings and fantasies. In relationships like teacher/student and doctor/patient we should expect that the full range of emotions can enter in (on both sides). Professional education should help us become better self-observers and self-managers, so that we can govern ourselves in accord with our professional responsibilities. Second, leadership matters. Inslee Clark set a permissive example. Likewise, in years past, leaders in medicine did the same. Medical leaders hushed up allegations against colleagues, just as bishops did with offending priests. Finally, when a problem hits the fan, respond as Tek Young Lin did, not as past medical leaders and bishops did - take responsibility for the situation, apologize, and make amends when possible.

(For the initial article about "Prep School Predators" see here. For the article about my teacher Tek Young Lin, see here. For yesterday's article about alumni reaction to how the school is handling the situation, see here.)


mary said...

It might be feasible to set an age limit (say, after college or age 24) so young adults have a chance to mature before making sexual decisions. Teachers/Professors should lose their tenure/lifelong credibility for taking advantage of teenage hormones

Jim Sabin said...

Hi Mary -

Thank you for your comment. You raise an interesting and important issue. In psychiatry, the code of ethics stipulates that a sexual relationship with former as well as current patients is unethical. That standard is based on considerations that include: (1) former patients may continue to see their therapists through the lens of "transference;" (2) a sexual or romantic relationship may prevent former patients who would want to return to treatment from doing so; and, (3) apart from considerations about the particular patient, relationships of this kind will reduce public trust in the profession.

I don't know whether the teaching profession has addressed your suggestion of an age limit, but I think your suggestion makes sense. Former high school students aren't going to go back to high school the way former patients may go back to treatment. And 6 years (from 18 to 24) gives hormones an opportunity to settle down a bit and for judgment to mature.