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When A Teacher and Student Relationship Gets Complicated

Teacher sexual abuse is as heinous as it gets when it comes to institutional sexual abuse. But, what happens when your high school-age or college-age child is discovered to be in a consensual, romantic, or sexual relationship with their teacher, professor, or an educational professional? These “relationships” tend to get rather complicated because of all the different angles involved. Luckily, Fellerman & Ciarimboli can break it down to help you determine what is wrong and what is right in terms of the law.

When these types of relationships are discovered, they are almost unanimously frowned upon; for good reason too. Parents, friends of the student, fellow teachers and educators, law enforcement, and both party’s legal teams must ask tough questions like:

  • How old was the student when the relationship started?
  • What is the age gap?
  • Was the educator a student-teacher (younger adults in their twenties in most cases)?
  • Is it a relationship or abuse?
  • Was the behavior groomed from the abuser?
  • Who started the inappropriate behavior?

There are dozens of other questions regarding these types of “relationships” and inappropriate conduct, but no matter what the answer is, the teacher is usually guilty or at-fault for what happened between them and another student.

According to the Pennsylvania Professional Standards and Practices Commission (PSPC), sexual misconduct between a teacher and student is quite broad:

“…the PSPC considers sexual misconduct to include any act or conduct directed towards or with a child or a student of a romantic or sexual nature regardless of the age of the child or student, including any sexual, romantic or erotic contact with the child or student as well as any verbal, non-verbal, written or electronic communication or physical activity designed to establish a romantic or sexual relationship…”

The Age of Consent

The first thing you should know about in this type of situation is the age of consent in Pennsylvania. For those who don’t know, the age of consent is 16 years old. This means 16 years old is the minimum age at which an individual can legally consent to some type of sexual activity. Those 15 years of age and younger cannot legally consent to sexual activity; even if they said yes to a teacher or educator. In this case, the teacher or educator may be brought up on charges of statutory rape.

As with any law, there are exceptions. The following tidbit from couldn’t say it any better:

“Pennsylvania statutory rape law is violated the de-facto age of consent law in Pennsylvania is actually 18 (due to Pennsylvania’s corruption of minors statute). This creates an interesting dynamic, as the laws allow teens aged 17 and 16 to consent to each other, but not to anyone 18 or older. Teens between 13 and 15 may or may not be able to consent to a partner less than 4 years older, because while they might not be affected by the statutory rape laws, they could be prosecuted under other offenses.”

There is also something known as a close-in-age exemption or the “Romeo and Juliet Law.” This exemption prevents the prosecution of underage couples who engage in sexual activity when both participants are extremely close in age, and one or both are below 16 years old.

What About College?

If you think things were complicated before, think again. When relationships happen between students and teachers in a high school setting, it’s usually illegal because the student is not of age. In college, that is not the case. Almost all students are adults.

Most colleges and universities have guidelines in place for this type of behavior. Earlier this year, the University of Pennsylvania banned sexual relations between faculty and undergraduate students. It was a significant policy change for them, as their previous policy stated that sexual relations between teachers and students were only prohibited “during the period of the teacher-student relationship.”

Aside from the blurry lines that exist in relationships between college students and professors, one thing is clear. No still means no. College professors hold a large position of power over their students, and they can abuse it to take advantage of their students.

Any unwanted sexual experience, no matter if it’s your college professor or your neighbor, can be a frightening and intimidating event. If a teacher or professor says or does something that is unwanted or makes you uncomfortable, it should be reported. If this is happening to you, talk to your academic advisor or university guidance counselor.

Contact Fellerman & Ciarimboli

This topic has a lot of information to it, and we will be sure to cover it thoroughly in other blogs in the future. But, we hope this rundown on teacher and student relationships has given you an understanding of how complicated this issue can be. If you are a victim, know someone who is a victim, or just have questions, contact the institutional abuse attorneys at Fellerman & Ciarimboli.

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With more than 40 years of combined experience, the personal injury attorneys at Fellerman & Ciarimboli strive to provide the best service to clients in Philadelphia, Northeast Pennsylvania, and throughout the Keystone State.





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