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Defining Boundaries at Deerfield
Board Editorial
January 24, 2018

During a school meeting this past fall, Dr. Curtis informed us that a faculty member’s employment had been terminated due to the violation of student-teacher “boundaries.” In the silence that ensued, several unanswered questions swirled in the tense air: What happened? Who was it? What did he do? What even are these “boundaries?” Have a teacher and I ever crossed one?

Then, a few weeks later, again, we heard the same speech and received little information about a staff member who was let go. While the missing face or hallway whispers eventually made it clear to some of us, at first, all we were told was that an employee had again been terminated due to some sort of boundary violation.

Credit: Lucy Blake

In response to the two cases of boundary violations in such close proximity, Dr. Curtis and the administration opened up the Caswell one night in the fall to provide an opportunity for discussion about boundaries at Deerfield. Lilley Salmon ’18, one of the seven students who attended the forum, recalled a list of “red flags” Dr. Curtis read, none of which were mentioned at school meeting. Some of these red flags included teachers texting students late at night, revealing personal information to them, or using inappropriate language in front of them. Multiple instances of these red flags could lead to termination. Salmon recounted, “[Dr. Curtis] said that firing faculty is the hardest part of her job, but sometimes it can’t be avoided.”

Recently, while it went widely unnoticed, the writing of nicknames on boxes at Shipping and Receiving was deemed to fall under what now seems to be an umbrella term called a “boundary violation.” If such a seemingly small detail of Deerfield life has reason to be outlawed by the administration as a potential threat to our safety, students are left to wonder, where do we draw the line? In an effort to protect us emotionally and physically, are our relationships being compromised? Even if there is a valid reason to call nicknames a boundary violation, many students would not see it that way, and we want to learn the reasoning behind policies regarding the relationships we have with other members of our community.

Although adults are typically held more accountable than students for boundary violations, students still have a role to play, as we want to both protect ourselves and ensure that we don’t put faculty or staff members in uncomfortable positions. But how can we do that when we don’t know what these “boundaries” are? We know that the school is only looking out for us and fulfilling a responsibility to keep us safe, but that responsibility should extend to informing us. If teachers have conversations at the beginning of a school year on boundaries, students should receive similar training or information.

At a boarding school, our teachers are also our coaches, hall residents, advisors, and more. With this much overlap, it is inevitable that the “boundaries” in student-adult relationships will blur together. Some boundary crossing might even be what makes Deerfield the special community that it is; English Teacher Julianne Schloat mentioned that during the training that faculty received at the start of the school year, they were told that “at a boarding school, teachers will often brush up against boundaries, but [they] wouldn’t be good faculty members if [they] didn’t.”

It’s the boundary violations that cause the trouble, but as students, we don’t know the difference between brushing up against boundaries and violating them. If we’re going to make Deerfield a safer environment for student-adult relationships, we have to work together, but we can’t do that until we first do a better job of educating the entire community on what boundaries are to begin with, and what they should look like at Deerfield.