Sexual Harassment in Schools: How Authority Breaks Trust

Here in the Philippines, we prize our teachers. We look up to them, idolize them, and appreciate them for taking the time to mold our minds and shape us into the leaders of tomorrow. We trust them to make us better people and to teach us lessons or discipline that will aid us as we grow up.

What happens when teachers break that trust?

More and more stories come out on social media about those who betray the trust of others. Sometimes it’s a classmate, someone you thought was a friend, or someone you thought was a respectable individual. All these stories are sinister in their own ways and display the disrespect and the breaking of trust between individuals. Social media has become a powerful tool in exposing these people for what they are and what they do.

What’s heartbreaking, too, is that stories come out about teachers. Teachers who we trust in the classroom. We offer our minds to them in hopes of leaving those classroom doors with a little more knowledge but some of us leave with confusion, with pain, with trauma instead. Some of us have been deeply betrayed by these people we are supposed to be able to trust and look up to.

Abuse in the academe

Students look up to their teachers. They look up to their educators as people who will shape them and sharpen their minds. Some students will even see them as role models or people they can pattern themselves after. That’s how highly-respected teachers are, especially here in the Philippines. This relationship and this connection is one that, when taken advantage of, can seriously damage students.

When stories come out about teachers who have been accused of sexual harassment, social media goes into a frenzy. “He’s a monster, he betrayed trust,” many will cry. And that comparison to being a monster is one that isn’t too farfetched, for those who believe most in monsters are the youth, and it’s them getting hurt when this happens.

These teachers are predators. They take the willingness of a student to learn and morph it into something monstrous and twisted: An opportunity to serve and themselves at the expense of a student’s trust.

How they operate

Abusers thrive in ambiguity, in situations where they can say that what they did was something else. If a student was uncomfortable and they approached and put their arm around them, they can claim it was a gesture of comfort, nothing more. If they send them messages that border on creepy, they can say that they are just taking an interest in their growth. It’s in the moments they can muddle the lines that they are most powerful–and it’s here where we have to recognize harassment for what it is.

There’s a power imbalance from the get-go with a student-teacher dynamic. Because they are an authority figure, they have power over the student in the context of the institution they’re in. Already there is a misalignment, an inequality. And using this height to their advantage, they make students their prey.

This is notable especially here in the Philippines where we have great respect for authority and utang ng loob. We’re taught from very early on to respect our elders, our culture of putting those older than us on pedestals stretching this power imbalance even more. They use this advantage, add in some ambiguous situations, and now take from students something they don’t consent to in the classroom.

Students come to learn but instead leave hurt. And the abusers hide behind thinly-veiled excuses of concern or interest in the student, things that could possibly let them get away from the punishment they very much deserve. They abuse the power they have over students for their own sick gain, a selfish move in a place that has no room for selfishness.

What happens now?

Some students are left feeling disgusted with themselves. Sexual harassment is one of the hardest things to come forward for and sometimes they let the memory fester there for years and never say anything. It’s hard to imagine that a figure you look up to could hurt you that way so sometimes you make up justifications for the actions and try to leave it in the past so you can move forward.

That’s not right. These abusers deserve to be called out and put to justice for the wrongs they do to students. Social media has revealed the names of many of these abusers, hinted at a few more, and the rising number of complaints have begun to form into action. But we have to keep fighting. We have to put these abusers to justice and let students heal.

What do you think? Let us know!

Related Stories