The importance of setting expectations for appropriate staff–student interactions
The relationship between school staff and students is critically important to student learning. Research shows that students’ attitudes toward learning are likely influenced, either positively or negatively, by their teacher. An analysis of 46 studies found an association between strong teacher–student relationships and higher student achievement, better school attendance, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, and lower dropout rates.1
However, when school staff abuse their authority and undermine student safety and trust, the results can be devastating. Accusations of unlawful sexual relationships or sexual assaults continue to make headlines, eroding confidence in public schools and subjecting districts to costly liability for damages. Understanding the boundaries of appropriate staff–student interactions is a challenge, and an area in which the governance team and district administration can provide assistance to school staff.

Acts involving sexual assault or sexual exploitation have serious consequences. Such acts fall within the legal definition of “child abuse” and, as such, must be referred to law enforcement by district staff, who are mandated reporters under the law. Sex offenses can also serve as grounds for an employee’s suspension or dismissal. In these cases, the district must place the employee on an immediate compulsory leave of absence and, if the employee is a certificated employee, must report the misconduct to the state Commission on Teacher Credentialing.

A student or former student who alleges sexual abuse by an employee may file a claim against the district for recovery of damages at any time within eight years of turning age 18 or within three years of the date the person discovered or reasonably should have discovered that psychological injury or illness was caused by the sexual abuse, whichever is later. Any district that is faced with an accusation of sexual misconduct against an employee should consult legal counsel to ensure proper handling of the situation.

The line between appropriate and inappropriate conduct is not always clear. A high school student wrote in an online article that she worries about teachers who “take advantage of the grey area between a casual student-teacher relationship and a romantic one. Teachers who simply flirt with their students present an entirely different kind of threat than do traditional child molesters. Namely, they threaten the emotional and mental stability of teenagers who already have a plethora of stressors in their lives.”2

Teacher helping students with tablet
Even well-meaning staff members who desire to build positive relationships with students need to be cautious. It is important that staff avoid behaviors that have the appearance of impropriety. Examples include being alone with a student outside the view of others, visiting a student’s home, “friending” a student on social media unless a site is dedicated to a legitimate educational purpose, being overly friendly with a student and disclosing personal information to students.

Board policies should set clear expectations for employee conduct, including expectations that employees report any improper conduct that they observe or have knowledge of. Districts may tailor CSBA’s new sample board policy BP 4119.24/4219.24/4319.24 – Appropriate Adult-Student Interactions to communicate the governing board’s intention with respect to staff conduct as it relates to students.

Districts should notify staff of applicable district policies and regulations, and consider providing professional development to further educate staff about expectations in regard to interactions with students. Additionally, and in accordance with the law, parents/guardians must be provided the district’s code of conduct dealing with staff–student interactions at the beginning of the school year. The code of conduct must also be posted on each school’s website or on the district’s website if the school does not have one.

“The purpose of this policy discussion is not to inhibit caring relationships that help build students’ interest in learning and connectedness to the school,” said Diane Greene, CSBA senior policy manual consultant, “but rather to provide an effective, safe learning environment for students that includes trusting relationships with staff and prevent career-ending, life-altering mistakes by staff.”

  1. Sparks, S.D. (2019, March 12). Why Teacher-Student Relationships Matter: New Findings Shed Light on Best Approaches. Education Week.

  3. Gilbert-Lurie, M. (2012, June 19). Why Student-Teacher Relationships are Never OK. Huffpost.