15 Finds Out: Can policies prevent teacher sex scandals?

FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – From homework assignments to reminders about after school activities, in this digital age, more and more teachers are using social media and texting to talk to students.

But, some say that’s a slippery slope to a sex scandal.

“A lot of these cases are starting on Facebook and text messaging and other social media,” Terry Abbott, a former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education, said. “Teachers are getting students’ private telephone numbers and quickly soliciting them for sexual relationships. We’re seeing that everywhere.”

Abbott is now chairman of Drive West Communications. That company tracked news reports in 2014 of teachers accused or convicted of sexual misconduct with students. It found 782 reported cases of teachers or school staff having inappropriate relationships with students. Of those, 20 were in Indiana, putting the state 14th in the nation. Per capita, Indiana ranked 18th.

“If a teacher knows they can and will be fired for a single secret text message with a student, it will stop.” – Terry Abbott

Full Report: Inappropriate Student Relationships 2014

Half of the Indiana cases involved social media.

“Texting and Facebook and social media are the number one tools of the classroom predator,” Abbott said. “Take away the secrecy, you take away that part of the problem.

Full Report: Inappropriate Student Relationships by State with Gender Social Media Breakdown 2014

In northeast Indiana, four teachers were accused of having a sexual relationship with a student between August 2014 and June 2015.

The court documents for three of those cases revealed that the inappropriate relationships involved private text messages between the teachers and their students. Many of those messages were sexual and some included explicit pictures.

“There are 70,000 educators in Indiana and when you think about these cases, it’s a small number. But, [those bad actors] really give the entire profession a black eye.” – Chris Himsel, NACS Superintendent

“A district right now that does not have some kind of social media policy has a ticking time bomb on their hands,” Abbott said.

15 Finds Out requested the social media and text messaging policies for all the public districts in northeast Indiana and northwest Ohio.

CLICK HERE TO READ YOUR DISTRICT’S POLICY

Most district policies allow electronic communication between a teacher and student but require it to be “directly related to curricular matter or extracurricular activities.”

“That’s not enough at all because what happens in these cases is the electronic conversation will begin with a school-related matter,” Abbott said. “Very quickly that conversation can turn into a sexual-related conversation.”

Abbott travels the country talking to school districts and superintendents, suggesting they adopt a policy that prohibits any kind of private message between a teacher and a student, whether that be on a social media site or through a text message.

“If I felt like a policy would help, we’d create one.” – Wayne Barker, Bluffton-Harrison MSD Superintendent

“It could be adapted to allow a teacher to have the conversation with the student if that conversation is copied to a parent or if it’s copied to the principal. As long as someone else is seeing it. The secrecy is the problem,” he said.

While it can be argued that someone who wants to have an inappropriate relationship with a student will do so with or without an explicit policy, Abbott maintained his suggestion can prevent them.

“If a parent finds a single message from a teacher to a child that they don’t know about, they can report it to the school right away and the school can immediately move against that teacher. That’s how strict we’ve got to get,” he said.

Bluffton-Harrison MSD doesn’t have a social media policy. It was also one of the districts to be hit by a teacher sex scandal in 2014.

“I don’t know anything happened because of a policy or lack of a policy,” Superintendent Wayne Barker said. “I know people look at that and think, ‘Well, if there’s an inappropriate relationship between a teacher and student, just prohibit that.’ But, if someone could be so unprofessional and immoral and wrong as to have an inappropriate relationship with a student, I’m not sure a policy that legislates that they can’t text them would stop that. It’s very difficult to legislate morality.”

The district does have a “responsible use” policy for the Internet and technology, but it’s not directly related to social media or talking to students via text.

“I’ve reviewed many policies and I haven’t seen one yet that I felt like did anything from preventing something like that from happening. If it did, we would do it,” Barker said.

Even without a specific social media policy, if a Bluffton-Harrison teacher has a sexual relationship with a student, he or she would be fired.

“Oh, yes. If they have an inappropriate relationship with a student, they’re not going to work here. We will report them to the Indiana Teachers Association and they will lose their license. If they’re in an inappropriate relationship, they’re out of education,” Barker said.

But, what about Abbott’s idea of requiring conversations to have a third person copied? Barker said in his district, students often reach out to teachers and staff for help getting to school or even for help at home.

“They might not call us at six in the morning, but they may text or send a Tweet or whatever because that’s the way they communicate,” he said. “We’ve found out when there was a need at home and we provide them with food or diapers. When you’re in the middle of those conversations, to try to include someone else in a somewhat emergency situation would be difficult.”

Northwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Chris Himsel agreed, saying sometimes a text conversation between a student and teacher is a safe place for the student to reach out for help.

“We also deal with situations where we deal with child abuse and different things being reported from the home as well and we have to maintain both of those roles,” he said. “All zero-tolerance policies have loopholes and prove they were not good policies. To make a blanket statement that [a private message] is never to occur takes away those appropriate kinds of things like when a kids wants to talk to you about abuse that’s happening.”

While NACS doesn’t have a social media policy either, Himsel said the district is covered by other policies.

“We have ethical policies in terms of an appropriate relationship and it’s a situation where it doesn’t matter if it was done in a face-to-face situation or done in writing a note home or through email or social media, we expect that professionalism will exist at all times,” he said.

Teachers are encouraged to be transparent about all communication with students, but it’s not an explicit policy.

“We are in the process to move more and more of our communications through a centralized electronic course management system so kids and parents can access information in whatever social media realm they choose and our communication will be through that course management system,” Himsel said.

“I think every school corporation at some point in time will have to set the boundary lines.” – Galen Mast, Smith-Green Community Schools Superintendent

Fort Wayne Community Schools doesn’t regulate texts between teachers and students, but it does prohibit a teacher from “friending” a student on Facebook without parental consent.

“We view texting like a phone call. If it’s inappropriate in a phone call then it’s inappropriate in a text. The reality is texting is how people communicate,” Krista Stockman, spokesperson for FWCS, said. “It’s a common sense policy. Just like you use common sense when you’re emailing or on the phone, you should use common sense with social media or texting or any other communication.”

Last year, social media and texting was part of a sex scandal with a Wayne High School teacher. Court documents said a student asked the teacher about homework on Twitter. He replied with his cell number and told the girl to text him. Those messages then became inappropriate.

But, that incident didn’t prompt a policy change.

“We always look at our policies. I wouldn’t say that spurred anything different from what we already talk about,” Stockman said.

Stockman said Abbott’s idea of teachers including a third person in any electronic communication with a student is a good idea as a suggested practice, but not as a policy.

“I don’t think those are bad recommendations. In terms of a policy? The reality is, it’s pretty unenforceable. But, for the protection of a teacher or staff member, that’s a good idea. Then you’re never putting yourself in a position where someone could come back later and say something happened,” Stockman said.

Stockman added that student safety is a top priority with or without a texting policy.

“If someone does something inappropriate with a child, we can take care of that whether we have it written down that you can’t do XYZ or not,” she said. “We’re not the kind of district where if we hear about it, we’ll let you go away quietly. If we find out you’ve done something with a child, we will not tolerate it and you will be gone. By and large, the vast majority of people are not predators. That was one out of the almost 5,000 employees we have and when we have situations, we address them right away.”

Smith-Green Community Schools, on the other hand, just adopted a new social media policy last fall.

“You watch other districts and the things going on. Once you see things in the newspaper, you realize that’s not where you want to go,” Superintendent Galen Mast said.

Smith-Green’s policy pretty bluntly acknowledges that instant messaging forms like Facebook and texting are quick and convenient but that “a simple message may lead to an extended messaging conversation that may or may not get off task.”

The policy states that teachers and coaches who plan to use those kinds of communication have to inform parents at the beginning of the school year and copy parents on the messages unless the parents opt out.

“Some of the parents don’t want that information,” Mast explained. “We wanted to make it student-friendly, teacher-friendly and parent-friendly as well.”

Any communication should also pass the TAP test: transparent, accessible and professional.

“We stress that anything you would write, make sure if it’s on the front page of the newspaper, it would be okay,” Mast said. “You’re protecting your students, but you’re also protecting your teachers and community. We thought this was a common sense approach.”

While his district’s policy is one of the most direct in addressing social media and text messaging communication, Mast thinks other districts won’t be too far behind.

“I think every school corporation at some point in time will have to set the boundary lines,” he said.

On Thursday the 15 Finds Out investigation continues with a closer look the legality of regulating how teachers can or can’t communicate with students and why some think the state legislature needs to step in. Plus, see how some new technology could actually be part of the solution. School Guard continues Thursday at 6 p.m. on NewsChannel 15.

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