California teachers owe a special “duty of care” to their students as designated childcare custodians who act in loco parentis—in place of the parents. They not only instruct their pupils but supervise their daily activities and pledge to keep them free from harm. A sexual relationship with a student could prevent a teacher from carrying out their legal duties to protect students from sexual abuse. When it comes to children under age 18, the law and court opinion are unambiguous: minors cannot give consent to sexual conduct, and any such relationship is expressly forbidden. Here, we explore California’s student-teacher relationship laws and related codes of conduct.
“Can I Have a Sexual Relationship With My Teacher If I’m 18?”
Despite the legal definition of an adult as someone “18 and older,” state courts have held that sexual relationships between students and teachers are against the law. In 2010, the Supreme Court of Washington ruled that a choir teacher’s sexual relationship with an 18-year-old student constituted “sexual misconduct with a minor,” even though the student had reached the state age of majority. The teacher avoided jail time but lost his teaching certification after pleading guilty to coercion.
Two years later, a 41-year-old California high school teacher made headlines when he left his wife and children to live with his 18-year-old student. Though the girl has openly declared her love for the teacher, her mother waged a public campaign against him, saying, “He shouldn’t be with kids… I’d like to get information from when she was a minor and have him arrested.” Shortly thereafter, another victim came forward about an affair in 1998, when she was 17 years old. The teacher was charged with “oral copulation with a minor.” A plea deal took jail time off the table and reduced the felony charge to a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to three years of probation and registry on the state sex offender list.
Legislators were quick to respond to public pressure but ultimately did not succeed in their efforts to clarify the law with regard to student-teacher sexual relationships. In April 2012, California lawmakers rejected Assembly Bill 1861, a bill that would have made it a felony for teachers to date their students. It also would have stripped offenders of their pension and retiree health care benefits. The law was opposed by the California Federation of Teachers and ACLU. Committee members claimed the bill was “not fully baked” and represented a “knee jerk reaction” to an individual case that had attracted a lot of attention.
Ethical Considerations in Higher Education
In the absence of state and federal laws expressly prohibiting sexual relationships between teachers and students who are “consenting adults,” at least 18 years of age, some schools have instituted their own internal policies that make the practice unethical and cause for written censure or dismissal.
Since 2003, the 23 schools within the California State University system have openly banned the “sexual harassment” of students by teachers. Individual school policies specifically condemn relationships between academia and those in their care.
Stanford University’s administrative guide explains the ban on professor-student dating applies “because of the relative youth of undergraduates and their particular vulnerability in such relationships.” The guide further explains that “such relationships may also have unintended, adverse effects on the climate of an academic program or work unit, thereby impairing the learning or working environment for others—both during such a relationship and after any break-up.”
“The very integrity of the university’s academic mission is dependent on the accountability of the faculty member as a mentor, educator, and evaluator,” said UC Poli-Sci professor Gayle Binion.
Deans, school administrators, coaches, supervisors, and professors exert broad influence over a student’s experience at Stanford. “The potential for conflict of interest, exploitation, favoritism, and bias” exists when direct relationships between supervisor and supervisee are allowed. To maintain the integrity of their programs, discouraging such relationships seems a logical step.
San Diego State University’s policy on the professional responsibilities of faculty members emphasizes that academic professionals “shall not engage in sexual relationships with students currently enrolled in their courses or under their supervision”—a violation that will be handled within its respective academic department or, if necessary, at the institutional level.
Child Molestation and Student Teacher Relationship Laws
Sex with students over 18 may not be a state felony, but there are laws protecting minors from sexual abuse at school. In the state of California, any sexual contact with a student under the age of 18 is explicitly prohibited by law.
- Penal Code 261.5 defines “statutory rape” as unlawful intercourse with someone under the age of 18. Minors are not legally allowed to give their consent to sexual activities of any kind. Punishments range depending on the age gap—from fines of $2,000 when the age gap is less than two years, to up to $25,000 in fines and felony charges that could result in jail time when the perpetrator is over 21 and the victim is under 16.
- More broadly, Penal Code 288 prohibits “lewd acts with a minor child.” It is against California law to “commit any lewd or lascivious act, upon or with the body, or any part or member thereof, of a child who is under the age of 14 years.” Any form of touching over or under the clothing is considered a “lewd act” and punishable as a felony with up to eight years of jail time and the perpetrator added to the sex offender registry.
- Penal Code 647.6 prohibits the “annoyance or molestation of a child under 18” as a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to a year in jail and fines up to $5,000. Adults can be charged simply by arranging a meeting with the intent to commit child molestation, as seen on Dateline stings where a police officer poses as a child to lure offenders to a hotel room. Conduct that is “motivated by an abnormal or unnatural sexual interest in children” is a violation of the law. Multiple violations can be charged as a felony, with a two- to six-year prison sentence.
- Federally, under Title IX law, “sexual discrimination” is prohibited in all schools. Districts are required to categorize “grooming behaviors” as sexual harassment red flags and investigate those claims as they would any other reported incident of sexual misconduct.
While not exactly illegal, evidence of sexual grooming behaviors is admissible in California courts. The presence of these behaviors can be a sufficient cause for further investigation that could lead to a conviction or a civil lawsuit against the enabling institution.
California Teachers Have a Mandatory Duty of Care for Students
The duty of a teacher goes beyond merely instructing students in a way that is free from discrimination, bias, or prejudice. The duty of a teacher is to protect children under their direct or indirect supervision from harm. California labels all teachers as “mandatory reporters” for child abuse. If a teacher receives a report of child abuse, or has a reasonable suspicion of child abuse, the law states that the teacher must:
- Make a verbal and written external report to the local police, county welfare, or probation department.
- Report known or suspected abuse in a reasonable timeframe (within 36 hours).
- Give one’s name and contact information to aid in the investigation.
Schools are liable for encouraging mandatory reporting, having employees sign a written statement that they are aware of the law, providing training to help employees understand how to spot child abuse, and assist with the filing of reports if necessary.
Failure to uphold the mandatory reporter law is punishable by up to six months in jail and a fine of $1,000. Beyond the criminal penalty for failure to report, teachers and schools can be sued in civil court for failing to meet the standard duty of care.
Contact an Attorney About Student-Teacher Relationship Laws in California
If you have any questions about student-teacher relationship laws in California, it’s best to talk with a legal professional. Lewis & Llewellyn is a national leader in prosecuting civil child sexual abuse cases. Our clients include children, parents, and adult survivors of trauma. We are not afraid to take on respected faculty members, schools, districts, administrators, or teachers’ unions. All consultations are confidential and provided free of charge.
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