Santa Barbara City College Looks to Update Rules on Student-Teacher Sexual Relationships

2019 Incident Involving Astronomy Instructor and Former Student Spurs College to Create Stricter Policy

SBCC Campus | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

Santa Barbara City College is looking to formally put a stop to relationships between students and staff or teachers.

A new policy is underway that prohibits faculty or other employees from “engag[ing] or seek[ing] to engage in a sexual relationship or sexual behavior with a student enrolled in the college.” It also prohibits the “use of illegal drugs in the presence of a student” and that they can’t “participate in, encourage or allow an underage student to drink alcohol,” among other similar restrictions.

“There is currently an instructor out on administrative leave because he did drugs and slept with a student,” SBCC Academic Senate President Raeanne Napoleon said at a senate meeting. “And I’m sorry if that is shocking for people, but that’s where this is coming from. Unfortunately we need to create policies to tell people very obvious things.”

The instructor Napoleon was referring to is Erin Burke O’Connor, an astronomy professor who, in a complaint filed against him in the Santa Barbara Superior Court in 2019, was initially charged with furnishing alcohol to a minor (the student) as well as being in possession of nitrous oxide with the intent to ingest it for intoxication. The latter charge was dropped entirely, and O’Connor pleaded no contest to the former. 

The college also received a third-party complaint against O’Connor for his relationship with the student, and he was subsequently put on administrative leave. 

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“Last year I had a brief relationship with an adult student, who was formerly in one of my courses at the college,” O’Connor told the Independent. “A third party filed a complaint, and while the student confirmed during the investigation that our relationship was consensual, I nevertheless regret that decision and have accepted consequences from the district for entering into this relationship.”

The college’s Board of Trustees voted to approve a settlement between an employee and the college at its September 10 closed session meeting. Though the college officials cannot confirm that the employee referenced was O’Connor, college sources confirmed the settlement was with O’Connor. The details of the settlement are not immediately available, but other campus employees have confirmed he is returning to teach again in the coming year. 

O’Connor’s situation was not an isolated incident for the college. According to Linda Esparza Dozer, the college’s Title IX and gender equity coordinator, there have been eight complaints filed for inappropriate student-employee relationships in the past two years. Four of those complaints resulted in a formal investigation. Up until the move to update the policy, the college only discouraged relationships between teachers and students. 

Though universities have typically adopted strong policies on student-teacher relationships, community colleges typically have not. UC Santa Barbara has a lengthy, 40-page policy on sexual harassment, and it takes the position that all sexual relationships between faculty and students are forbidden, regardless of it being consensual, because “any such relationship jeopardizes the integrity of the educational process.”

“The policy addresses important issues, and we’re going to be a leader among community colleges with it,” said Trustee Jonathan Abboud. “We need this to protect students in uneven power dynamics. I don’t think it’s going to be an easy fight to approve it, but we can.”

Trustee Marsha Croninger drafted the policy along with Abboud; however, she does not feel it will be difficult to gain approval on it.

The Board of Trustees gave the drafted version of the policy to the Academic Senate to review and give feedback. Ultimately, it must come back to the trustees for final approval.

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