Power Relationships in Schools

Posted on July 5th, 2013

When does power enter into a relationship between two people?  Is it when they first meet with one person having more desire than another to form the relationship initially?  The school teacher Mr Jeremy Forrest established a relationship with a pupil, who openly stated she had a crush on Mr Forrest.  At that point she might have wanted the relationship with Mr Forrest more than he did with her, we don’t know.  The fact that he was her teacher and she his pupil starts to tip the balance in one person’s favour.  The school teacher/pupil relationship is always a mismatch of power and Mr Forrest abused that power by engaging in a relationship with a pupil he taught.  However, consider further the power dynamics of pupil/school teacher relationships which for centuries been the bastion of self-government.  In this case there were pupils clearly raising the alarm to their teachers about another teacher’s relationship with a pupil; these teachers were accountable adults ‘in charge’ of their pupil’s educational development and responsible for safeguarding them.  These teachers decided to speak to Mr Forrest, who denied his relationship with his pupil and this created another power imbalance. Who to believe, a colleague, denying the relationship or the pupils raising concerns about the conduct of a male teacher with a female pupil he taught.  Mr Forrest’s status as an adult in authority overrode the credibility of the pupils in the school.  The power dynamics in the school again worked in his favour.

Mr Forrest was an adult, twice the age of his student, with a degree education, demonstrating he has the ability to think through complex problems and offer a solution.  Instead of thinking how he could avoid the situation with his female pupil who he knew had feelings for him Mr Forrest used his knowledge to arrange meetings with his pupil and eventually to leave the UK and travel with her to France.  The thinking, planning and the financial cost of organising the travel and subsequent overnight stays in hotels were beyond the capacity of a 15 year old girl.  Mr Forrest’s education had not enabled him to view ‘right from wrong’, but rather seems to have plunged him into believing himself to be some kind of romantic character, certainly not a predator.

Did Mr Forrest really have the power to convince all these other adults that his behaviour was acceptable?  Surely a colleague could have suggested that she sit with the 14 year old pupil, holding her hand on the turbulent fight from America rather than allowing a 30 year old man to comfort a vulnerable girl.

Mr Forrest is an adult, he was an adult when he held the hand of a child and he was an adult when he started a sexual relationship with a child, the power bestowed through his adulthood led him not to protect.  The choice Mr Forrest made as an adult was to abuse a child over a significant period of time in an environment where most relationships are usually known by several people, leading me back to the point about other teachers ignoring the warnings pupils raised.

Mr Forrest reportedly mouthed the words ‘I love you’ to his pupil across the Court without stopping to think he was interacting emotionally with a child, so continuing to block out the fact he was an adult teacher and she a child pupil who had been exploited.

Mr Forrest is now ensconced in prison.  His future for the next few years decided.  But what about the girl, returning to school, a place where her identity will be fully exposed.  Where it is likely that male teachers will be conscious of her company in private and male pupils may target her knowing that she has been sexually active by her own admission with Mr Forrest.  Other boys and girls may refer to her with ridicule or aversion indirectly or directly.  The outcome is that this young person is likely to be seen as ‘a problem’ in the hierarchal environment of a school, further betraying the unequal power imbalance within relationships that is active in schools. This is without even considering that the action of one male teacher could lead this young female pupil into more relationships with men in power positions, be it physical, emotional or status.  This young person will need assistance to manage relationships in school and outside.  She needs to be offered help to build trust and confirm boundaries so she is able to grow into a strong young woman, achieving her goals. Where will she get this support – in her school?  The very place where her uneven, power imbalance relationship began and was allowed to flourish.

In this case there are more people guilty of an abuse of power than just Mr Forrest, who inappropriately crossed a line.  Others enabled this abuse to occur and they need to look at the part they played in the systematic failure to protect a young, vulnerable female child from an abusive adult.  School pupils sought to protect a fellow child pupil from an abusive teacher, only to not be believed by his adult colleagues.

Certainly training is required for the teaching staff, but there is also a need for attitudes to change, so safer, more open environments can be established. Transparency in power relationships enables people to challenge situations that don’t seem right without disturbing the equilibrium.

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