Tech + lax boundaries can = teacher misconduct

The News TribuneMarch 27, 2014 

Many school districts have rules restricting teachers’ personal communications with students.

NAM Y. HUH/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

As long as there have been teachers and students, there probably have been inappropriate relationships between some of them.

But there’s something about technology, social media and the relaxed boundaries they seem to encourage that are contributing to what some observers perceive as a growing problem of inappropriate teacher-student contact, according to a report Sunday by The News Tribune’s Debbie Cafazzo.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that this kind of communication leaves a trail that’s fairly easy to follow: The number and length of cellphone calls can be accessed, as well as the content of text messages. That can help make a legal case against an offending educator.

And let’s make this clear: The teachers — the older and supposedly wiser persons operating from positions of power and authority — are the ones at fault, even in cases where students appear to have taken the first step. It’s teachers’ responsibility to gently but firmly reject the student who may have a crush, not encourage it with flirtatious text messages and certainly not to act on it.

That’s a criminal offense, even if the contact is “consensual.” In this state, it’s illegal for school employees to have sexual contact with any student, even an 18-year-old. Recent cases in two South Sound school districts show what can happen when teachers take student interaction to the wrong level.

 • In Tacoma, a 24-year-old who taught at Lincoln High School is accused of sexual misconduct with three teenage students. She has pleaded not guilty to charges of third-degree child rape and communicating with a minor for immoral purposes; she allegedly sent suggestive texts and racy photos of herself.

 • In University Place, a 33-year-old who taught at Curtis High School has pleaded not guilty to sexual misconduct with a 17-year-old student. Records show he had many text and cellphone contacts with the girl.

It’s unclear what more the school districts involved could have done in these cases. Both have clear policies against teachers sharing private contact information with students, and both provide regular training on the subject.

Technology and social media can play valuable roles in keeping teachers connected to students and their parents. For instance, a teacher could send a group email or text to alert parents that deadlines are approaching for student projects.

But districts need to strongly discourage private communication with students; that too easily can evolve from texts and emails to physical encounters. If a teacher needs to message a student, he or she should be required to include the child’s parents in the loop. If the child is reaching out to a teacher because of problems at home, the teacher should contact appropriate school administrators, including counselors, to offer help.

Younger teachers — ones who have grown up with social media and may not see anything wrong with sending or posting personal material — might need extra training on boundaries that school districts expect them to keep with students. It’s a brave new world of technology, but parents still expect teachers to educate their children, not exploit them.

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