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I'm a grad student and TA.

I was playing pool on campus and met some people who happened to be in a frat. We played together and they invited me to their frat party. Long story short, I got really drunk and ended up having sex with someone. I didn't realize that they were in my class until the morning (I have a lot of students).

What do I do? How do I make this right? I'm sure this is bad, but just how bad?

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    Which country are you in? – Dan Romik Feb 18 '17 at 21:31
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – ff524 Feb 19 '17 at 18:05
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Note: I'm a department chair at a US university. The following represents my thoughts about your question assuming you are in the US. I will stick to comments pertaining to university policy. I am not a lawyer and am unqualified to offer any legal advice of any sort.


What do I do? How do I make this right? I'm sure this is bad, but just how bad?

This is awkward, but if indeed you are telling the truth and you didn't realize the person you had sex with was your student at the time it happened, and assuming it was consensual and both of you are of legal age, I don't think it's that bad, if you now proceed to handle the situation correctly and with maturity.

The important thing (and I mean really, really, really important) is that you must immediately act to remove yourself from any position of authority over the student to avoid ending up in hot water over what is certain to be (if you fail to act as I am suggesting) a pretty bad violation of university policy, and potentially even legal trouble. That means speaking to the instructor for the class, telling them honestly exactly what happened (yeah awkward I know), and asking for their guidance about what needs to be done. (It's a good idea for that request to be documented in writing/email.) The department chair will likely need to become informed of the situation as well. My guess is they will either have to remove you from your role as TA for the class, or arrange for the student to switch to another TA if that is a practical option, and find ways to ensure you are not involved in grading or other assessments related to the student in question.

If the instructor and chair are sensible people, I don't expect that there will be any disciplinary action or other formal repercussions to what happened, although you should certainly expect some unpleasant discussions, possibly having to be interviewed by campus officials who handle sexual harassment and discrimination, receiving unpleasantly-worded memos counseling you about university sexual harassment policies, and similar headaches. It's also quite possible that the incident will cause the instructor for the course and/or the department chair (hopefully no one else in your department will need to learn about what happened) to form negative opinions about you. As I said, if they are reasonable and professional people they will keep those opinions to themselves and move on.

Finally, if the people who handle the incident are not reasonable people, well, all sorts of things may happen, so you'd better make sure you protect yourself against unfair treatment by not committing any missteps that could end up making your situation worse. Such missteps may include trying to keep the incident secret from your department; telling about it but lying about some details (out of embarrassment or because you think those details make you look bad) or omitting important details; or any other immature/unethical/foolish behavior. Ultimately, as I said, you have a reasonable case to argue that you essentially didn't do anything (at least not knowingly, and not so far) that violates any university policies, so if you handle this with maturity chances are you should be fine.

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Assuming you are in the United States, you are currently in an extremely vulnerable situation from a legal and academic perspective.

If I were you, I would immediately report yourself to your professor -- and then to the university Title IX office. I would ask to be reassigned out of grading or having any other academic contact with that student.

The reason you should report yourself immediately is if the student for vindictive reasons files a sexual harassment suit accusing you of offering to have sex with them in exchange for a good grade, you have very little protection. You did in fact have sex (and I assume you'd admit that), but it's harder to prove that you didn't offer anything for that sex. That makes a defense difficult to impossible.

Furthermore, even if the student doesn't report you, they can now blackmail you.

By reporting yourself and taking yourself out of any academic relationship with the student is pretty much the only way you can assure that there was no promise or offer of any exchange in lieu of sex -- and there is no possibility in the future.

However, you'd still be in violation of most campus codes of conduct and likely face some reprimand. Fortunately, just plain consensual sex between instructors (including TAs) and students is viewed much more leniently than exchange of favors for sex.

The moral of the story is not to place yourself in any situation where this type of thing might potentially happen.

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    but it's harder to prove that you didn't offer anything for that sex. – The presumption of innocence is really dead in the US in these matters, isn’t it? – Wrzlprmft Feb 19 '17 at 7:52
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    It might be worth adding some guidance on 'don't place yourself in any situation where this type of thing might happen'. Playing pool around campus for the fun of playing pool I would not see as a problem. Getting drunk at a frat party I would definitely see as the other side of the line. – Jessica B Feb 19 '17 at 8:08
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    @Wrzlprmft The Office for Civil Rights has issued a guidance letter about sexual violence on campuses receiving federal funds. Their fact sheet about the guidance says that it was issued "to remind schools of their responsibilities to take immediate and effective steps to respond to sexual violence in accordance with the requirements of Title IX. In the context of the letter, sexual violence means physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person’s will or where a person is incapable of giving consent." The guidance letter says, "Sexual violence, as that term is used in this letter, ... – aparente001 Feb 19 '17 at 18:57
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    ... refers to physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person’s will or where a person is incapable of giving consent due to the victim’s use of drugs or alcohol." If either of the parties was too drunk to provide consent, then legally, in the U.S., the sexual acts may be presumed to have been non-consensual. We are now beyond "no means no." We are now in an era where "too drunk to know what the heck is going on" doesn't mean "yes," and, thus, means "no." Note, this might end up providing considerable protection to OP's TA status (regardless of OP's gender). See... – aparente001 Feb 19 '17 at 18:58
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    ... Fact Sheet; Guidance Letter – aparente001 Feb 19 '17 at 19:02
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Others have already outlined the appropriate steps to take -- mainly to come clean to those who make the assignments between TAs and students. I'll just focus my answer on why this is the right thing to do. In reality, if the professor who runs your class or the department head are reasonable people, you are not likely to suffer much from this -- these things happen, and reasonable people can find reasonable solutions without making too much of a fuss about it.

So let me tell you how I would handle this if I were in charge and you came to me to tell me the story:

First, I'd tell you that you did the right thing. And that that is because there are two things that could happen that would reflect poorly on you, the department, and the university: (i) the student in question could blackmail you and threaten to tell everyone if you didn't give him good grades; (ii) the student may in fact be good and deserve all of the good grades, but others who know will claim that you played favorites with him and that he got better grades than he deserves. We call these situations conflicts of interest: you are -- or equally bad, you may -- have a conflict between your job duties of being an impartial grader and teacher, and your interest in protecting your reputation in a situation of blackmail. What is necessary in this situation is that, with speed, we remove you from your role as someone who assigns grades to the student so that neither of these situations can happen.

Second, I'd tell you that I don't actually need to know any of the details. It happened. Let's move on and find solutions. I don't need to know where it happened, when it happened, what exactly happened, if anyone else knows, whether you used protection (though I'd quietly hope that you did), etc. You had sex. Students do. Let's just assume that everyone knows by now -- whether or not that's the case is immaterial, I'm just going to plan for the worst case.

Third, let's resolve the conflict of interest. For this, you would need to be removed from your position where you grade or instruct the student in question. The quiet way would be to move the student to another section of the class. The less quiet way would be to move you from the section you teach right now to another one. Practicalities may dictate which way is feasible, but one or the other needs to happen.

I would end by repeating that I appreciate your coming to me and coming clean. We all know that students have a life, and these things happen. It is incumbent on all of us to deal with it with reason.

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    @DanRomik Consent here is a tricky issue (at least from a legal perspective), especially with alcohol involved. Going by the OP's statement, the OP was so impaired that they lacked awareness of what was happening and had to piece things together after waking up. This could be taken as evidence that the OP was legally incapable of providing consent. But then the fact that the OP is in a position of power relative to the student complicates things even further....IANAL, but one might suggest the OP make not specific claims to consent until advised to so as not to hamstring a defense. – zibadawa timmy Feb 19 '17 at 6:17
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    @DanRomik -- no, I don't need to know this. Consent is a criminal question, and as a faculty, I would probably have to report the issue to the appropriate place in the university; as a human, I would also do well to ask the TA whether she wants to talk to a counselor and if so make the connection. But for the purposes of the conflict of interest, I do not need to know any of that -- I will have to assume the worst case that the student will blackmail and that other students will assume favoritism. Everything that goes beyond this is not important for me to address the situation in a clear way. – Wolfgang Bangerth Feb 19 '17 at 7:24
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    I'm also going to note that it is absolutely none of my business to pry into the personal details of a TA. Whether or not she regrets the incident in hindsight, whether it was consensual, whether alcohol was involved, etc, all have no impact on how I need to resolve the issue. I certainly have no business traumatizing the TA by asking all sorts of personal pieces of the story. – Wolfgang Bangerth Feb 19 '17 at 7:26
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    Ok, I see where you're coming from. To clarify, when I said "you" need to know, I meant (someone at) the university needs to know. Probably you, the professor directly in charge of the TA, don't necessarily need to participate in debriefing the TA to learn such details (and I totally understand you preferring not to be involved). But I stand by my assertion that someone at the university (e.g. the department chair and/or a Title IX officer) will need to have them in order for the university to devise the best strategy to minimize legal risks and maximize assistance to all involved parties. – Dan Romik Feb 19 '17 at 8:24
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    Consent or not is none of my business. These are criminal law questions, and as such I will probably call up the title IX officer to tell them about it -- even though the question as posted gives no indication that anything illegal may have happened. But I want to stress again that whether or not anything illegal happened has nothing to do with (i) how I need to deal with the situation to clear up the conflict of interest, and (ii) it really is none of my business to inquire about. I'm not a law enforcement officer, nor a trainer counselor. Asking more than I need can only make things worse. – Wolfgang Bangerth Feb 20 '17 at 2:26
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You could either go see a department administrator and tell him or her the basic outline. Or you could wait and see.

Personally, if I were you I would do the preemptive thing.

This weekend, you can be reading up on university policy, code of conduct, graduate employee handbook, employment contract, etc. This can help you decide; and it will also help you understand the technical discussions that may ensue.

If you are a member of a union, ask for a union representative to go with you to any meetings.

At the same time, if you are not already working with a medical or mental health provider about healthy use of alcohol, I'd suggest getting started on that as well, so you can avoid destructive and self-destructive behaviors in future.

Edit:

I forgot to answer your last question. How bad is this? It is impossible to say at this point; however, nothing is gained by panicking. I don't want to offer false reassurance. I think you must realize that statistically speaking the chances of something bad coming from this are fairly low. If you think there is no police car in sight when you make the illegal U-turn, the chances that you will get in trouble are statistically low. But you might be observed by a police officer and you might get a warning or a ticket; if you already have a lot of points, your license could be suspended. In this case, the possible negative repercussions are: an accusation of sexual harassment, possible pregnancy, possible decision to abort a pregnancy, possible decision to carry a baby to term and place it in adoption or raise it, possible spread of HIV or other sexually transmitted disease, possible jeopardy to your TAship, possibility of being unable to continue in the program due to financial repercussions of the loss of the TAship. I don't want to alarm you, but if you want to know how bad this might be, those are the possible negative consequences of what happened.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – eykanal Feb 21 '17 at 14:03

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