Teacher-student relationship: what are the legal parameters – Civil law

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The teacher-student relationship is not a subject that is sufficiently explored and discussed between the actors concerned, given the events of recent years. One would expect this subject to be visited regularly given the frequently increasing number of incidents of violence and bullying between teachers and learners. More recently, between February 2022 and March 2022, there have been a few reports of incidents where the teacher-student relationship has been abused. One such incident occurred in the Free State where the teacher has now been fired for sexual assault, after hugging and kissing an on-duty learner. The facts of this incident present an abuse vastly different from such a relationship, as most typically involve violence. Nevertheless, such behavior constitutes an abuse of the teacher-learner relationship. Another more recent incident occurred, again, in the Free State. A teacher violently pushed a learner which resulted in the teacher being suspended. In the Eastern Cape, a former headteacher has been struck off the educator register following an incident in which he forced a pupil to search for the phone in an outhouse. In light of the foregoing, it is perhaps appropriate to briefly address the nature of this relationship and its legal parameters. Importantly, it is also necessary to define what the legal implications of abusing this relationship are. In this regard, both civil law and criminal law remedies must be considered. It should be kept in mind that the abuse of such a relationship is not always the fault of the teachers but also of the learners. It is not uncommon these days to see videos on social media where teachers are abused, ridiculed and embarrassed by learners. It is therefore also imperative to consider what the legal recourse is in this regard.

The relationship between learners and teachers is regulated, directly and indirectly, by various instruments. First, there is the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. Then there is the Schools Act, and there are well-established legal principles in terms of common law and so on. In addition, the Children’s Act finds application in this regard. One can still add school code of conduct, public policy (i.e. what the legal beliefs of society would consider appropriate behavior), etc. The principles of all these instruments are aligned and the overriding principle is to safeguard “the best interests of the child”.

An applicable legal remedy will be strictly determined by the facts and circumstances of the relevant incident. In the first incident mentioned above where a teacher hugged and kissed the learner, it can be argued that under criminal law there is a possibility of charges of sexual assault and forcible sexual assault. A civil law remedy can be a claim for shock – psychologically and emotionally. With respect to the second example, in criminal law there can be charges of assault with intent to cause grievous bodily harm, assault, and so on. Depending on the seriousness and seriousness, there may even be a case for attempted murder. In civil law, again depending on the severity of the injuries, there may be a claim for general damages, past and future medical expenses, future loss of income/loss of earning capacity. In the third example, in criminal law, one can consider laying charges for crimen insulted, bullying and harassment, etc. In civil law, a claim for damages provided above may be applicable in this regard. A similar legal remedy is also applicable when the teacher is the victim of abuse and intimidation. Whether a particular form of conduct between a learner and a teacher violates legal parameters or is appropriate behavior will be dictated by the nature, context and assessment of the general circumstances of that particular conduct. In most cases where there is an allegation of abusive conduct, the company’s legal beliefs are generally used and, where such conduct is found to be contrary to such beliefs, the conduct is deemed to be contra bonos morals.

Given the frequency of such incidents, it is necessary that this subject be regularly and adequately addressed. This will not only raise awareness on an ongoing basis, but also enlighten all relevant stakeholders on the applicable laws and how to seek help in the event of a breakdown in a teacher-learner relationship.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide on the subject. Specialist advice should be sought regarding your particular situation.

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