I have been following the case of Mary Gowans, a teacher in Toronto accused, and later acquitted of sexual assault and sexual interference with a minor - one of her former students (story is linked in the title above). I only know what the media has shared and so I am not here to judge her guilty or innocent. I am however concerned with the violations of boundaries that appear to have spiraled beyond what they both could control. A shame, when it is the responsibility of the adult to uphold the boundary and indicate when the line has been crossed.
From examples brought up in court, it seems the lines between teacher and friend were blurred. Instances of text messaging and get-togethers outside school hours were repeatedly reinforced by the attention and social contact received from both parties. Over time their social contact shaped into even more questionable interactions. Only when it was too late, did the adult supposedly stop reinforcing the behaviour and from there, the situation escalated.
What this case highlights is that we cannot reinforce social behaviours that are a violation of our own personal and/or professional boundaries. The reciprocity and “allowances” reinforce the behaviour as socially acceptable. If someone violates a boundary, they must be told about it and taught how to behave the next time.
When it comes to educators, social service workers and other professionals displaying appropriate boundaries, I am quite the stickler for following the rules. I will call others on them. I have supported many youths confused by the mixed messages and contextual grey areas that define what is acceptable or unacceptable social behaviour. Much of their confusion comes from adults who excuse their behaviour because of their disability and/or treat them like infants. What seems like “being nice” or innocent exchanges actively work at teaching the individual their behaviour is okay. Eventually, someone comes along who does not think it is okay or the behaviour evolves into something that is now “against the rules” or in some cases, illegal. Now the person is called upon to change their behaviour. It is harder to do this if the boundary-breaking behaviour has been reinforced by others over many years. This is why I actively work at only providing social reciprocity and engagement for displays of appropriate social behaviours.
What does this mean for a professional like me?
- I’m not friends with clients/students on Facebook, Twitter or other social media platforms unless I am setting up a separate account for the purpose of our work together.
- I do not acknowledge my clients or students out in public after hours unless they approach me first.
- I do not hug clients/students. If clients/students try, I redirect to a high-fives or hand shakes.
- I insist that parents and other professionals not refer to me as “your friend, Miss T”. I can be called teacher, helper or simply Miss T. but I am not their child’s friend.
- I limit my personal chatter among colleagues; I reveal only basic personal information about me and my family (e.g., Name, city I live in, my favourite movie or food to eat). If I am asked for information I am not comfortable with sharing, I inform the client/student that information is private and suggest a question I can answer.
- When I am providing touch as part of my support (e.g., deep pressure input for reinforcement or any personal care), I announce how I am going to touch, ask for permission and then I try to place a barrier between my hands and client/student where possible (e.g., a pillow, therapy ball or other equipment, gloves, cloth mitts).
- When I discuss topics that are typically private (e.g., sexuality, puberty, self-care), I highlight the private circle we are temporarily in and when we have stepped back into our usual helper-client/student circle (therefore, the topic cannot be discussed until back into a private circle).
- I inform my clients/students of the rules of and limitations to confidentiality.
- I never promise to keep secrets.
- I do not post pictures of my clients or students - even if the caption is “Look how cute/amazing/awesome/etc. he is”
- Changing of clothing can only occur in designated areas such as a bathroom, bedroom or change room. If I see removal of clothing anywhere else, I cover the client/student’s exposed area and redirect the client/student to the appropriate place.
- We never ever allow masturbation to occur at school or therapy centre. It is never allowed in these settings (including a private bathroom) and must be stopped immediately. That behaviour is for the bedroom at home.
- If a client/student touches or grabs me I tell them “hands down” and teach others ways they can get my attention.
This list may seem rather harsh or cold. There is some strong wording there on purpose (in case there was any question or doubt about what should and should not occur). Obviously, this list does not highlight the many ways professionals can and do engage with our clients/students that create supportive learning environments. That list is too great and lengthy to include here!
Boundaries are necessary for establishing clear roles and expectations in a helper/teacher-client/student relationship. There is little room for your professionalism to be questioned and the client/student learns what is expected of them, not only in your setting, but in other public settings.