If a teacher and a student fall in love and have a consensual sexual encounter, should the teacher go to jail for 10 years? What if the student is of the age of consent? What if both of them are female? This is a real case: a trial court in Georgia convicted a woman of sexual assault on her female student and sentenced the teacher to 10 years in jail plus 5 years of probation. The court rejected the consent defence. Although, the Georgia Supreme Court overturned the trial court on this point, the real possibility of 10 years in jail for an encounter with an of-age student lover is shocking. It does not serve the state interest in protecting children, places a disproportionate burden on teachers, and is possibly in this case a product of homophobia.
If the student fell in love with an older woman who wasn’t her teacher or a similar figure, it would be perfectly legal. The student was 16, which is the age of consent in Georgia. The trial court sentenced the woman to 10 years only because she was her lover’s teacher. They give 10 years of jail for killing someone in Canada. Sometimes even less. No doubt it is a harsh sentence, especially in an American jail. No doubt it ostensibly intended to protect children from exploitation by people in authority. Also, in this case, the student’s mother contacted the police and perhaps affected her daughter’s testimony and pressed the prosecution.
Imagine you are the trial judge. You have the power to send the woman away for a long time. What would be the state interest in doing so? The statute that criminalized the acts in this case aims to protect schoolchildren from exploitation. There is sometimes some sensual attraction on both sides between students and teachers. For the former, it’s when the hormones or romantic ideas kick in, and for the latter it’s either a sick mind or a genuine feeling. In either case, the teacher is always the much stronger party that has some authority over the student. Underage students usually need supervision, so parents and the state relies on teachers to provide this benefit to them. We have a fiduciary duty here.
When it comes to underage children, the state recognizes some duty regardless of the adult’s profession. That’s why the state presumes exploitation in all sexual relations between children and adults. It’s a statutory rape, consent or not. The age of consent reflects a real public interest. Here, the student was of age. Does her lover’s position as a teacher justifies ignoring the age of consent? Moreover, is the harm so big that the state should jail the woman for ten years just because she was the teacher here? Georgia’s Supreme Court correctly noted that sometimes teachers are younger than students. Should we have a higher age of consent for relations involving supervision? Or should we ban such relations in high schools? The statute was silent on that.
The trial court proposed a stern construction of the statute. They ignored the mutual consent and the student’s age, and convicted the teacher of statutory rape giving her a 10-year sentence. Why? Is the public interest in protecting 16-year-olds from making love to their teachers so high that it trumps the interest in drawing people to the teaching profession? If Georgia’s Supreme Court let the trial decision stand (which the Court of Appeals did by the way), the risks and the burdens on teachers would be inordinate. A kiss on the lips? Jail. Hugging together in a tent on a camping trip? Jail. Couldn’t prove your touch was accidental? Jail. Teachers would either start keeping a safe distance from each student or leave the profession. Again, we are talking about students of age here. Or was the trial court just outraged because the women were gay?
The need to protect vulnerable people is real. Teachers should not be allowed to exploit teenage angst or hyper-sexuality. And the burden is correctly on the teachers as specially-trained adults. The age of consent does not make it alright to take advantage of students. Schools including universities should be free to ban all sexual relations between students and their teachers. Courts should be able to award civil damages if a student drops out because of an involvement with a teacher, regardless of consent. But criminalizing a consensual relationship between people that are both of age is excessive. Raising the age of consent for schools is not an answer. There is a reason it is 16, even in Georgia. Some things, students and teachers just can’t help doing. But they don’t deserve 10 years of jail for it.