Building an Ethical Corporate Culture
Who is telling the Truth in the Republican Debates?

Teacher-Student Sex Raises Ethical Questions

Is it ever acceptable for a teacher to have sex with a student?

I just read an article by Brady Mallory that reports about a middle school teacher in Pierre, South Dakota, George Sazama, who admitted to having sex with a 17-year-old high school girl three times.  According to the complaint, this happened on three separate occasions at his home while the 53 year old's wife was away for the weekend. Sazama was placed on paid administrative leave last fall after the school superintendent received a tip from someone in the community. He resigned in December.

Perhaps you heard the story of Stacy Schuler, a popular Ohio high school gym teacher, who was sentenced to four years in jail last October after a judge rejected her insanity defense and convicted her on 16 counts of sexual battery for sleeping with her former students. Schuler had sex with five former students, some of whom were football players, at the school in suburban Cincinnati, where she taught since 2000. During her trial, Schuler's lawyers defended her actions with explanations ranging from her vegan diet, the use of the antidepressants, blackouts from alcohol and even irritable bowel syndrome, claiming it rendered her unable to determine right from wrong.

Who can forget Debra Lafave, a reading teacher at a middle school in Florida, who was arrested in June 2004 on charges of having sexual intercourse with a 14-year-old boy? During Lafave’s trial her defense attorney stated that she was too pretty to go to jail, saying "to place Debbie into a Florida state women's penitentiary, to place an attractive young woman in that kind of hellhole, is like putting a piece of raw meat in with the lions." Lafave’s attorney claimed insanity on behalf of his client and cited bipolar disorder.  Ultimately, Lafave pleaded guilty to two counts of lewd and lascivious battery, and received three years of house arrest, seven years’ probation, and was forced to register as a sex offender.

One of the more famous, or should I say infamous, cases of teacher sex with a student is that of Mary Kay Letourneau, the former Seattle school teacher, who was imprisoned from 1997 to 2004 for having sexual intercourse with her 13-year-old student, Vili Fualaau. Letourneau gave birth to two of Fualaau’s children while incarcerated. After her release from prison, she married her former student and took his name.

In each of these cases the arrested teachers violated the ethical bond that must exist between teacher and student. The teacher has a position of trust and any action to take advantage of it is unethical. It doesn’t matter whether the under-aged child consents to the sexual activity. I believe it doesn’t even matter if the student is of the age of consent. Any sexual contact between a teacher and student is wrong.

Teachers are entrusted with having the good judgment, maturity, and professionalism to not act on sexual impulses toward students that may exist because of the daily contact, individual help with schoolwork, and mentoring position they hold. Teachers should be role models to their students and not abuse that relationship.

In reflecting on teacher-student sex, I can’t help but think about the Penn State case where Jerry Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator, allegedly raped a 10-year old boy in the Penn State locker room and abused many others. Assuming these allegations are true, as appears very likely, Sandusky not only abused his position of trust but brought physical and mental harm to the boys he abused.

What was going on in the minds of these teachers who took advantage of their positions to harm students? What motivates them to act out sexual fantasies without the self-restraint that is expected of all of us in society, not only teachers?

The foundation of ethical behavior is the Golden Rule to treat others the way you want to be treated. However, that is not enough because one could argue in the aforementioned cases that the perpetrators would have been happy to have been sexually approached by their abusers in the same way they abused these kids.

In ethics, the Golden Rule is a starting point to develop the ethical reasoning skills that enable a person to treat others with honesty, integrity, respect, caring, and trustworthiness to name a few virtues. To do so means that we must develop the moral motivation and wisdom to act in a way that we know is the right thing to do. This comes from having the moral courage to resist pressures and temptations to act otherwise. Each one of us has it within ourselves to be a moral person, but some of us can't see past our own egoistic needs. A basic requirement of ethical behavior is to consider how your actions might affect others before treating them in a certain way. For the abusive teacher such a thought never crosses their mind.

If I were a psychologist I might label such behavior, in the tradition of Casey Anthony, as narcissistic. Narcissism is a personality disorder characterized by the need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. Narcissistic people are extremely self-absorbed, insensitive to others' needs, and indifferent to the effects of their own egocentric behavior.

As a college professor I am well aware of my ethical responsibilities to my students. In fact, we discuss these issues at the first class meeting. As educators we must "walk the talk" of ethics to positively influence the moral development of our students. As noted historian, journalist, novelist and educator Henry Brooks Adams once said: "A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops." 

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on January 16, 2012