The Teacher-Student Relationship: Where Do the Boundaries Lie?

Teachers are considered to hold a unique position of trust, care and authority due to their influence on children and young people through education and learning. The result is an inherent power imbalance between teachers and students, which creates an expectation that teachers uphold high standards of integrity, accountability and professionalism. Schools and their teachers have a duty to exercise reasonable care to protect students from reasonably foreseeable risks of harm whilst involved in school activities. While most teachers understand their duties and professional responsibilities, overt and persistent breaches of professional boundaries present clear risks to child safety.

The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (Royal Commission) found that many child abusers in the school setting were able to engage in grooming behaviour by exploiting the teacher-student relationship, which was considered to be “a pivotal and emotionally significant relationship for the child and the child’s family”. According to the Royal Commission, child abusers in the school setting often embark on a process of ‘progressive and incremental’ violations of professional boundaries, increasing the likelihood of sexual abuse occurring.

Failure to meet expectations of the teaching profession, particularly where breaches of professional boundaries occur, will likely cause a teacher to face disciplinary action, including cancellation and ongoing suspension of registration to teach, and may potentially expose them to criminal sanctions.

Professional Boundaries Case Study: Queensland College of Teachers v JNS [2018] QCAT 228

A recent case of the Queensland Civil and Administrative Tribunal (QCAT) highlights the importance of teachers maintaining professional boundaries.

JNS became a registered teacher in December 2012. Allegations emerged of an inappropriate relationship between her and a female student. The student had attended the school since Year 8 and was described as having a troubled background, living with a foster parent during her enrolment.

JNS taught the student in question for one subject between 2014 and 2016, while the student was enrolled in Year 10 to Year 12. In the final two years, JNS was also the student’s pastoral care teacher. The student was also a friend of the teacher’s younger sister.

From the first half of 2015 until March 2017, a pattern of behaviour emerged from interactions between JNS and the student which pointed to ongoing and repeated breaches of professional standards. Key facts included:

  • JNS and the student exchanged various emails about personal topics, including ‘over-friendly chit-chat’, discussion of personal problems and reports on classroom behaviour
  • in August 2015, JNS requested permission for the student to sleep in her cabin during the Year 11 camp due to the student suffering from nightmares.
  • the student attended a theatre at night with the teacher and her family, and the teacher reportedly accepted chocolates, a book and a card as gifts from the student
  • multiple times during 2016, JNS and the student were observed sitting alone together and talking in a building after school
  • in June 2016, the student told her child safety officer that she would be moving into JNS’s parents’ home once she graduated, which the QCAT determined did occur
  • in Term 3 2016, the student ran out of a class, and was later found in the school chapel with JNS
  • in February 2017, JNS introduced the former student as her partner, which was repeated when both attended a friends’ dinner in March 2017.
  • One of the friends reported the relationship to the authorities after discovering JNS’s partner was a recently-graduated student of the teacher’s school.

JNS’s employer wrote to her in March 2017, expressing concern about the relationship. In a detailed response the following month, the teacher denied inappropriate behaviour, claiming that she provided the student with the type of pastoral care that she would for any student in need, and that moving in together was as a result of the student’s close relationship with JNS’s family.

In May 2017 the College suspended JNS’s registration, which was upheld by the QCAT in July 2017. The teacher’s registration subsequently expired on 6 December 2017. Disciplinary proceedings were referred to the QCAT in January 2018.

Under the Education (Queensland College of Teachers) Act 2005 (Qld), behaviour connected with the teaching profession that does not satisfy the standard of behaviour generally expected of a teacher constitutes a ground for disciplinary action. A similar ground also exists in other jurisdictions. On 16 July 2018, the QCAT found that this disciplinary ground was established on the evidence available.

JNS was found to have failed to maintain professional boundaries for much of the last two years of the student’s schooling. The teacher was also found to have heightened responsibility to ensure the students’ best interests due to being a pastoral care teacher. The QCAT concluded that JNS exploited the student’s neediness for the purposes of forming an intimate relationship.

The QCAT prohibited JNS from reapplying for registration or permission to teach before 17 May 2022, and that a subsequent application by the teacher to do so would need to be accompanied by a report by a psychologist. This report would need to assess whether the teacher adequately understood various matters including differentiating between personal and professional relationships, the legal obligations of teachers, and the importance of professional boundaries and standards.

Compliance requirements for professional boundaries

While there is no definitive source on where professional boundaries lie in the teacher-student relationship, they will be breached wherever a teacher misuses their inherent power imbalance in a way that compromises a student’s welfare.

Teachers are required to meet the Australian Professional Standards for Teachers as part of the registration process. Standard 3.1 requires teachers to “maintain student safety”, and Standard 7.1 instructs teachers to understand and apply key principles described in codes of ethics and conduct for the teaching profession. However, as identified by the Royal Commission, the Standards do not provide guidance for teachers on how to identify child abuse or breaches of professional boundaries.

At the state/territory level, the Standards are supplemented by codes of conduct and guidelines. For example, the College has published Professional Boundaries: A Guideline for Queensland Teachers which instruct teachers on professional obligations and how to recognise potential breaches. The guideline includes questions teachers can ask themselves to help assess situations, such as:

  • “Am I dealing with a particular student differently from the way I deal with other students under the same circumstances?”
  • “Am I engaging in behaviours and discussions either personally or ‘online’ that are beyond the realm of children or teenagers?”
  • “Would I modify my behaviour with a student if a colleague were present?”
  • “Would I judge my conduct negatively if I observed it in another teacher?”

Schools are increasingly expected to take precautions to prevent students from being exposed to physical or sexual abuse by individuals associated with the school, such as teachers and volunteers; it is reasonable to expect that upholding professional boundaries and codes of conduct would constitute such a precaution. For example, schools in Victoria have an organisational duty to take “reasonable precautions” to prevent the physical or sexual abuse of a student by an individual associated with the school. A similar law took effect in New South Wales on 31 August, making it an offence for a school to fail to reduce or remove the risk of a child becoming victim of child abuse by a person carrying out work for the school.

Could a breach of professional boundaries constitute grooming?

On the facts available, it would appear that JNS ‘groomed’ her student over a period of years, though this was not raised by the QCAT.

As explained previously on School Governance, grooming is intrinsically difficult to identify at the time it occurs, since the classification of behaviour as ‘grooming’ depends on the motivation of the alleged perpetrator. An understanding of contributing factors, indicators and techniques of grooming may enable schools to recognise and respond appropriately to the threat of grooming in particular school contexts. Schools need to be on the lookout for indicators of grooming regardless of a teacher or staff member’s established character, popularity, or the fact that they have not previously exhibited inappropriate behaviour.

Grooming is a criminal offence, with many jurisdictions recently introducing legislative amendments which expand the scope of their grooming offences. For example, the Australian Capital Territory introduced an expanded offence of grooming and depraving young people, as well as two new grooming offences which focus on conduct rather than communication, which took effect on 2 March 2018. In NSW, new laws will soon commence which prohibit grooming of a person for unlawful sexual activity with a child under the person’s authority. This will impact schools as their staff have students under their ”care, supervision or authority”.

How can schools promote child protection and uphold professional boundaries?

Cases such as this one serve as an important reminder for all schools and teachers to practise awareness of what acts can constitute misconduct and breaches of professional boundaries.

The line between teacher and peer may appear blurred where the teacher in question is themselves a young adolescent and proximate in age to his/her students, which was the case with JNS and her student. But professional misconduct breaches professional ethics and in this context is likely to be a criminal offence, regardless of the student or teacher’s age or whether there was consent.

Boarding schools in particular should be aware of the potential for the blurring of professional boundaries. The Royal Commission identified high levels of situational risk in residential care settings, including because of the increased involvement of adults in the personal care of children. Other situations in which professional boundaries may become blurred or are at increased risk of breach include:

  • excursions and other off-site activities
  • interaction of teachers/students in online environments and digital platforms
  • rural areas where staff may be close members of the general community
  • relationships with former students, as the imbalance in the teacher-student relationship doesn’t disappear after a student’s schooling has ended.

With all this in mind, schools must ensure they have strong child protection policies and procedures in place to ensure that all indicators of child abuse, including grooming, are monitored and can be identified by school staff. A child protection framework must be underscored by implementing a child protection culture which promotes child safety in all school environments.

A school’s child protection framework should also include:

  • internal guidelines relating to professional boundaries, including indicators of grooming behaviour, the difference between personal and professional relationships and rules for electronic communicates
  • training for all staff on professional standards and ethics, including what actions and behaviours may be considered inappropriate
  • clear disciplinary consequences for boundary violations set out in a child safety code of conduct
  • implementing a conflicts of interest register and encouraging staff to disclose potential conflicts, such as family relationships and close friendship networks, as well as any interactions with students outside school hours.

Schools should also be aware of their powers to remove or suspend teachers if their behaviour poses a threat to students or in response to continued breach of internal policies. They should also ensure that all staff understand the school’s duty to report to regulatory bodies in cases of staff misconduct.


About the Author

Kieran Seed is a Legal Research Consultant and School Governance reporter. He can be contacted here.

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