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Lauren Battaglia Dumont, Jeffrey Barnett, Psy.D., ABPP

Boundaries in Academia: An Examination of Educator-Student Relationship Policy

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College students are young individuals in the process of maturing and developing (Murphy, Blustein, Bohling, & Platt, 2010). They are continually in contact with educators, and due to a variety of factors, the educator-student relationship has a large power differential in favor of the educator (Anderson & Shore, 2008).  College students are vulnerable and at risk for exploitation and harm in both sexual and non-sexual relationships with their educators (Anderson & Shore, 2008). Students become at risk for exploitation and harm when educators mishandle boundaries, which are meant to maintain a professional relationship that protects and promotes student welfare (Smith & Fitzpatrick, 1995). Sexual educator-student relationship boundaries are violated, as anywhere from 2-25% of educators have engaged in sexual relationships with their students (Downs, 2003; Fitzgerald, Weitzman, Gold, & Omerod, 1998; Lamb, Catanzaro, & Moorman, 2003; Pope, Levenson, & Schover, 1979; Zakrewski, 2006). As a result, students feel harmed and exploited, and report moderate to extreme anxiety and discomfort that negatively influence their academic and professional careers (Glasser & Thorpe, 1986; O’Connor, Slimp & Burian, 1994). Non-sexual deviations in the educator-student relationship can also occur. For example, an educator can enter into more than one relationship with a student; as the educator can be both a professor and an employer to his or her student who provides babysitting services. Engaging in such roles outside of the professional relationship is called a multiple relationship (APA, 2010). Other non-sexual deviations in the educator-student relationship include gift-giving, sharing meals with a student, and spending more time with a particular student or group of students than others (Zur, 2007). These types of deviations occur, as 40% of counseling supervisors reported engaging in multiple relationships with students, 27% of which were considered educator-student friendships (Navin & Beamish, 1995). Although these actions deviate from the traditional educator-student relationship, they are not necessarily inappropriate in nature. It is important to note these deviations increase the risk of exploitation and harm by inserting inconsistent goals, objectives, and role dynamics into the relationship (Lazarus, 1998; Markie, 1994) and become inappropriate when they result in exploitation or harm to the student (Gottlieb & Younggren, 2004). Therefore, educators must be provided with guidance regarding boundaries to promote student welfare and avoid student harm. 

College students are extremely vulnerable and at risk for exploitation and harm in educator-student relationships  (Anderson & Shore, 2008), thus educators must be provided with guidance on how to promote student welfare and avoid student harm. In 1997, Rupert and Holmes analyzed faculty handbooks of colleges and universities to examine what type of guidance was provided to educators regarding navigating relationships. In their sample 55% of universities prohibit, and 33% of universities discourage, sexual relationships between faculty and students. In addition, they found that 55% of universities reported encouraging friendships between educators and students. These statistics highlight only some of the great variability in various institutions’ policies on educator-student relationships. However, the literature lacks a more current analysis of institutional policies. Therefore, the purpose of this examination was to update this information. 


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