Prevalence and Prevention of Romantic and Sexual Relationships between High School Students and Educators

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Lisa Nunez

Using international statistics, up to 17% of boys and up to 33.8% of girls of girls are victims of child sexual abuse (CSA), making CSA a global concern (Barth, Bermetz, Heim, Trelle, & Tonia, 2013; Bouvier et al., 1999). While research suggests that CSA contributes to negative effects in a range of functional domains (e.g., social, psychological, and sexual), definitional ambiguity continues to plague researchers. Given that context influences a particular victim’s perception of sexual contact, identification of types of behaviors (e.g., fondling, intercourse-only, non-contact abuse) in varying domains (e.g., school, parish, home) that reliably relate to negative mental health outcomes poses a challenge. Considerations related to unreported cases are more relevant in the abuse field than other self-report survey areas, as many people choose not to report abuse for numerous reasons (e.g., fear, shame, protection of the perpetrator). As a result, reported prevalence rates of CSA vary widely, with one recentworldwide meta-analysis identifying estimated prevalence rates between 8 and 31% for females and between 3 and 17% for males(Barth et al., 2013), and another indicating 11 to 22% for girls and 4 to 19% for boys (Stoltenborgh, van IJzendoorn, Euser, & Bakermans-Kranenburg, 2011).

Tysheann Grant

It is widely agreed that children who have experienced the most “serious” forms of sexual abuse (e.g., penetration, forceful/threatening sexual contact, and abuse perpetrated by those related to their victims)

report elevated levels of psychological distress and symptomatology (e.g., Glover et al., 2010; Lopez-Castroman et al., 2013; Swingle et al., 2016; Yancey, Naufel, & Hansen, 2013). The impact of such maltreatment may include maladaptive coping strategies (e.g., denial, isolation, detachment, premature substadnce abuse), heightened stress levels, and increased risk of developing adult psychopathology—including posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, panic disorder, personality disorders, substance abuse, and anxiety disorders.

Jacob Ambrose

Parents, concerned about “stranger danger” and CSA, often carefully vet their children’s caretakers when they are outside of parental supervision. Therefore, schools are the primary setting in which children are cared for by individuals who are largely unknown by parents. Little is known about the prevalence and dynamics of inappropriate relationships between students and educators in this important setting. The United States Department of Education (U.S. DoE) only found 14 published research studies when they commissioned a study to explore the prevalence of educator sexual misconduct in 2004 (Shakeshaft, 2004). The few studies that have been conducted explore allegations within a constricted time frame, in limited U.S. regions, or by specific victims of school sexual abuse. Additionally, virtually all studies have analyzed data related only to educators who have lost their license due to sexual misconduct with a student.

Francesca Tencza

Through an investigation of the disciplinary records of educators in the U.S., the Associated Press found 2,570 instances between 2001 and 2005 of educators who either surrendered their teaching credentials or had them rescinded, denied, or sanctioned due to sexual misconduct with a student (Tanner, 2007). While this prevalence figure represents a low base rate of sexual abuse within school settings, survey research of children in school settings yields conflicting data. In 2000, the American Association of University Women (AAUW)conducted a survey that revealed 38% of students between 8th and 11th grade reported that they were sexually harassed by school employees (AAUW, 2001); other researchers found that 14% of high school students had engaged in sexual acts with a teacher (Wishnietsky, 1991). The U.S. DoE study also concluded that at least 1 in 10 students had experienced sexual harassment or violence perpetrated by an educator while attending school (Shakeshaft, 2004).

Constance Dalenberg

The limited research available is a shortcoming of the field of CSA and could be due to the challenges within this area of study. Beyond the problems posed by under-reporting or over-reporting, researchers face obstacles from parents and institutions with concerns about asking children questions about these interactions. Parents who refuse permission for such a survey may be over-represented in the group of families most likely to shame sexuality in their teens, a key group to target for research. Further, older adolescents may refuse to cooperate with questions about their sexual contacts with adults, particularly if they see such contacts as consensual.

Teenagers work to develop their moral compasses by questioning what is “right” and what is “wrong” (Kohlberg, 1971). Still immersed in the process of establishing a personal ethics code, high school students may have difficulty seeing a sexual relationship with a teacher as unacceptable. This can be difficult for teenagers at or above the age of consent in their state who are challenged with an internal debate regarding their understandings of legal and moral limits. For example, in Delaware, 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds are legally allowed to have sexual relationships with adults under age 30 (Del. Code §§ 5-770, 1973); whereas, California state law prohibits all sexual relationships between individuals younger than 18 and adults (Cal. Penal Code § 261.5, 1872).

Educational ethics uniformly judge student-educator relationships as unacceptable, but variations in the law as well as variations in cultural norms will change the acceptability and, thus, the likelihood of relationships at the fringes of educator domain (e.g., young assistant coach, substitute teacher, college student tutor).

The Trauma Research Institute Educator Sexual Abuse Study

In our ongoing study, we have recruited 648 young adults who had recently (within six years) graduated from a U.S. high school. This sample was recruited to capture a more complete range of responses since parental approval to participate would not be required. The age cap of 24 was instituted to capture participants that were likely to have experience with current technological advances in schools and communication modalities, such as the ability to text teachers or befriend them on social media. Respondents provided estimated prevalence rates by answering questions on how often students and teachers had certain interactions, and how often they, themselves, had such interactions with teachers. They were also asked to evaluate proposed system changes intended to prevent student-teacher sexual relationships, judging the likelihood of a positive impact.

As determined by endorsement of either of two questions (“an educator had a sexual relationship with you” and/or “an educator touched you inappropriately”), 5.9% of our sample reported personal sexual abuse. However, approximately 20% indicated knowledge of a peer who had a sexual relationship with an educator.  Less than one-quarter indicated that they would “definitely tell” others that their friend was having a sexual relationship with an educator.  Only 7.4% of participants believed that their typical peer would disclose such an inappropriate relationship if the victim asked them not to tell.  A full third admitted that they would actively conceal the relationship. When asked if they would seriously consider a relationship themselves with an attractive teacher at 16 or 17 years old, 21.4% stated that they “probably” or “definitely” would have done so.

Respondents reported to believe that forbidding staff from being friends with students on Facebook, Instagram, or similar apps was the most important preventative strategy to consider. This finding is consistent with current research, as studies provide support that individuals often experience less discomfort initiating courting behavior while using a form of social media compared to face to face interaction (Lawson & Leck, 2006). Online applications thus could bridge initial moral concerns of an adult contacting a student, increasing the likelihood of an eventual intimate relationship.  Importantly, respondents were willing to cooperate and provide feedback on prevention strategies.  Collecting information from students may provide meaningful and unique insights into the problem at hand.  Evaluation figures for each of the top ten prevention strategies are presented in Table 1.

Creating a school environment free of student-teacher sexual relations is daunting, given the impracticality of constantly monitoring student-teacher interactions (Horns-Marsh, 1999) and the challenges associated with screening potential abusers prior to hiring.  One existing prevention method concerns pre-employment screening techniques.  For instance, most if not all educational institutions integrate some form of criminal background checks into their hiring processes to exclude applicants with greater potential for varying types of maltreatment of students from their pool of candidates (Grant, Shakeshaft, & Mueller, 2019; Hall & Kanoy, 1995; Salmans, 2008).  However, due to anti-discrimination, privacy, and defamation laws, it can be challenging for schools to implement extensive and invasive prevention methods in identifying potential abusers applying for sensitive positions (e.g., teachers, school counselors, coaches, and volunteers), such as evaluation of actual attraction to children, as part of a screening process (Hall & Kanoy, 1995).

In the context of the present study, the typical young adult indicated that most of the proposed techniques to prevent student-educator relations (e.g., rules against individual students being alone with teachers, school education programs, avenues for anonymous disclosure) would not be effective or feasible. Although the degree of honest respondent cooperation cannot be confidently identified in studies of this kind, particularly given that limited malingering measures were included in the current investigation, it might be useful to garner further student involvement regarding the development of prevention methods. We recommend, for instance, more in-depth student interviews, representative national surveys, and involvement of school administrators, sexual abuse experts, and experienced teachers. Given the difficulties related to screening for sexual abusers in the school system, consulting with students is essential in advancing both research on prevention methods for student-teacher relationships and implementation of these methods. Generally, additional student-focused research is needed to develop effective educator sexual abuse prevention measures that are legally and ethically acceptable and practical for implementation, including those that can be incorporated into the hiring process and those that may be integrated into already existing school-safety measures.

Table 1

Evaluation of Ideas for Preventing Sexual/Romantic Student-Teacher Relationships

Good Idea Maybe Probably Not Bad Idea
Staff not allowed to be friends with students on Facebook/Instagram/similar apps (n = 673) 51.9% 23.8% 16.6% 7.7%
Staff and students only allowed to meet when the room’s door is open (n = 673) 39.7% 33.0% 18.4% 8.9%
Staff and students only allowed to text on a monitored system (n = 674) 39.5% 28.8% 18.5% 13.2%
Train peers who candiscuss these issues with staff who know what to do (n = 673) 38.9% 39.8% 15.9% 5.3%
Create a box that students can anonymously add notes to when they have known information or rumors about students and staff (n = 671) 33.7% 26.8% 26.8% 12.7%
Students must sign up to see staff for tutoring or meetings so that the administration can monitor who signs up a lot (n= 673) 26.7% 32.7% 23.6% 16.9%
Develop a video on YouTube where kids who have been through relationships with staff can encourage other kids to say no to staff who pursue them (n = 673) 20.2% 41.5% 26.6% 11.7%
To be alone with a staff member, students must go to a specific room that is monitored periodically (n = 672) 18.8% 32.0% 26.8% 22.5%
Staff randomly roam the halls and just walk in on various classrooms (n = 671) 14.5% 24.7% 31.3% 29.5%
Have a play or seminar at the beginning of school year warning kids not to get involved with adults (n = 673) 12.3% 31.8% 30.6% 25.3%


American Association of University Women (2001). Hostile hallways: Bullying, teasing, and sexual harassment in school. American Association of University Women Educational Foundation: Washington, DC.

Bouvier, P., Halpérin, D., Rey, H., Jaffé, P. D., Laederach, J., Mounoud, R.-L., & Pawlak, C. (1999). Typology and correlates of sexual abuse in children and youth: Multivariate analyses in a prevalence study in Geneva. Child Abuse & Neglect, 23, 779–790.

Barth, J., Bermetz, L., Heim, E., Trelle, S., & Tonia, T. (2013). The current prevalence of child sexual abuse worldwide: a systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Public Health, 58, 469-483.

California Criminal Code, Cal. Penal Code § 261.5 (1872).

Delaware Criminal Code, Del. Code §§ 5-770 (1973).

Glover, D. A., Loeb, T. B., Carmona, J. V., Sciolla, A., Zhang, M., Myers, H. F., & Wyatt, G. E. (2010). Childhood sexual abuse severity and disclosure predict posttraumatic stress symptoms and biomarkers in ethnic minority women. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 11, 152-173.

Grant, B., Shakeshaft, C., Mueller, J. (2019) Prevention of preK-12 school employee sexual misconduct and abuse. Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, 28, 125-128.

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Swingle, J. M., Tursich, M., Cleveland, J. M., Gold, S. N., Tolliver, S. F., Michaels, L., …  Sciarrino, N. A. (2016). Childhood disclosure of sexual abuse: Necessary but not necessarily sufficient. Child Abuse & Neglect, 62, 10-18.

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Yancey, C. T., Naufel, K. Z., & Hansen, D. J. (2013). The relationship of personal, family, and abuse-specific factors to children’s clinical presentation following childhood sexual abuse. Journal of Family Violence, 28, 31–42.

Ms. Lisa Nunez, M.A. is a Clinical Psychology Doctoral Candidate at the California School of Professional Psychology, San Diego and a member of the Trauma Research Institute headed by Dr. Constance Dalenberg. Her work focuses on the research, assessment, and treatment of various types and degrees of sexual abuse. Currently, Ms. Nunez is focused on researching the psychological impact of victimization by revenge pornography and the general public’s recommendation of sentencing for perpetrators of revenge pornography. Her clinical interests are centered around trauma treatment in the young adult population, with a propensity towards working with sexual abuse victims.

Ms. Tysheann Grant, M.A. is a Clinical Psychology Doctoral student at Alliant International University, California School of Professional Psychology.  She is a member of the Trauma Research Institute, which is led by Dr. Constance Dalenberg Ph.D.  Tysheann’s current research interest is on identity development in the African American Community.  As a Forensic Emphasis student, Tysheann aims to work within the criminal justice system to pursue her clinical interests in trauma and severe and persistent mental illness and improve the psychological well-being of current and formerly incarcerated people, as well as at risk youth populations.

Mr. Jacob Ambrose, B.A., is currently a Clinical Psychology Doctoral student at the California School of Professional Psychology at Alliant International University in San Diego, CA and a member of the Trauma Research Institute headed by Dr. Constance Dalenberg.  Originally from Louisiana, he attended the University of Louisiana Lafayette (UL) where he received a Bachelor of Arts in psychology.   While attending UL he led his undergraduate class as Psi Chi president.   Jacob’s current research interests include cross racial rejection sensitivity, rejection resiliency, and educational safety procedures.  His clinical interests center on providing trauma informed care for youth and adolescent populations.

Francesca Tencza, B.A., is a Clinical Psychology Doctoral student with a Trauma-Focused Forensic emphasis at Alliant International University, San Diego’s California School of Professional Psychology, where she is involved in the Trauma Research Institute facilitated by Dr. Constance Dalenberg.  Prior to enrolling at CSPP, she completed her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology with Honors from the University of San Francisco while volunteering with the wonderful team at UCSF’s Laboratory for Educational Neuroscience (brainLENS).  Francesca is interested in clinical and research topics concerning child maltreatment (namely psychological abuse) and complex PTSD, in addition to custody disputes and forensic evaluations involving child abuse.

Dr. Constance Dalenberg is a clinical and forensic psychologist. She is a Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Alliant International University, where she proudly directs the Trauma Research Institute. She is former President of Division 56 and Associate Editor for Psychological Trauma.  Her work has focused on treatment, assessment and consequences of trauma, and her seminars on countertransference and treatment of trauma have been presented nationally and internationally. Professional recognition has included the Morton Prince Award for Scientific Achievement from the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from Division 56, American Psychological Association.