School Climate & Safety

Digital Age Adds New Dimension to Incidents of Staff-Student Sex

By Lesli A. Maxwell — November 26, 2007 8 min read
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The 44-year-old guidance counselor would send text messages to the 15-year-old boy on the boy’s cellphone in the middle of the school day. But the messages had nothing to do with academics or counseling.

With words along the lines of “see u soon” and “how about now?,” the female counselor would then arrange to get the boy a pass to leave class and come to her office. Sometimes, she and the student would have sexual contact in her office. Other times, she took him off campus to have sex.

“Text messaging actually made it much easier for the liaisons to take place,” said Mary Jo McGrath, an education lawyer in Santa Barbara, Calif., who testified as an expert witness for the boy’s family in their lawsuit against the New Jersey school district where he was a freshman in high school.

The counselor’s typed text messages to arrange trysts are the sort of digital come-ons that experts say have become a new and prevalent feature in cases that involve educators accused of sexually abusing students.

Increasingly, those who follow such cases say, teachers and other school employees who prey on students are using the current must-have tools of adolescent social networks—cellphone text messaging, Web sites such as MySpace and Facebook, and e-mail—to foster inappropriate relationships and perpetrate abuse.

“This is most definitely an emerging trend that school districts and school leaders may not have on their radar screens, but they should,” said Robert J. Shoop, the director of the Cargill Center for Ethical Leadership at Kansas State University and the author of a book on how school districts can identify and deal with sexual misconduct by educators.

When the sexual abuse of students by educators involves digital technology, the harm can be heightened in ways that make an already damaging betrayal of trust even more devastating.

Abusers can use the Internet, e-mail, or text messaging, for example, to constantly pursue students, in and out of school. In some extreme cases, they may use the Web in a way that magnifies the abuse exponentially, as a 6th grade teacher in Vermont did recently when he was charged with using his students as models for his homemade child pornography.

At the same time, the electronic trail left by such communications can present evidence for authorities investigating allegations of educator misconduct. For some officials, that trail has become an invaluable tool in rooting out bad actors even when they don’t have a cooperating victim.

Clear Policy Advised

For school leaders, the widespread use of such digital communications between teachers and students presents a new complication to the delicate management of relationships between school employees and students.

Some cases are clearly inappropriate and raise obvious red flags, like the teacher investigated in one state recently who was sending text messages to his student in the middle of the night. But what about the teacher in another state who had a MySpace page filled with photos and personal information who shares a link to her page with a student?

“The intimacy that these communications can create, and the blurring of boundaries, are a real danger because it can seem so innocent, and so contemporary,” Mr. Shoop said. “But every school should have a very clear policy on what is appropriate use of technology for teachers and school staff.”

In the East Greenbush Central School District in Rensselaer County, N.Y., an ongoing case has prompted district officials to think about how to address the issue with school staff members.

A 37-year-old high school teacher in the 5,000-student district was sentenced this month to nine months behind bars and 10 years’ probation after admitting to having oral sex in his classroom with a 16-year-old male student.

During the investigation, police found that the teacher, Kirk James Hellwig, had been posing as a 15-year-old boy named “Kirk” on a MySpace page he had created. Authorities said that the teacher’s MySpace page was not directly connected to the abuse case.

Mr. Hellwig, who was a social studies teacher, also pleaded guilty to using indecent material to converse with the victim online and will serve 10 years’ probation for that charge. He was ordered to permanently surrender his teaching license and resign from the East Greenbush district.

Case Spurs Outreach

Rebecca Furlong, who became the superintendent of the district in August, declined to discuss the details of the case. But she said the role of the Internet and MySpace had raised her awareness about the need to look more closely at what types of communication between teachers and students are appropriate.

“We are looking at incorporating these issues of how teachers communicate with their students and what is appropriate into future professional development, as well as our mentoring program for new teachers,” Ms. Furlong said. “Clearly, the use of the Web needs to become a vital piece of talking about what’s appropriate.”

In the wake of the incident, the district worked with a state senator to disseminate a computer program to all middle and high school parents to teach them and their children about social-networking sites such as MySpace and the potential dangers associated with them, Ms. Furlong said.

Read more stories on this topic from our special collection of stories, “A Lingering Shame: Sexual Abuse of Students by School Employees.” The collection includes a new Associated Press series on the issue, as well as special Education Week coverage.

Many school administrators encourage teachers to communicate electronically with their students and parents on academic matters. Some even encourage teachers to create Web pages.

Mr. Shoop of Kansas State, who last month gave a keynote address to the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification on the use of technology in cases of educator sexual exploitation, said that in districts with many young teachers, clear guidelines and frank discussions about how those electronic communications are to be used are especially critical.

“Many of the younger teachers coming into the profession are from a generation that has an entirely different concept of privacy and what professional boundaries are,” he said. “We are talking about 22- and 23-year-old teachers who already have MySpace pages and Facebook pages.”

That issue is of particular concern to state education officials who are responsible for judging what is and isn’t appropriate.

“If you’ve got a young educator who is in a rock band in his private life and has a MySpace page with explicit lyrics on it—and his students find out about it—that is one thing,” said Victoria Chamberlain, the executive director of Oregon’s Teacher Standards and Practices Commission and the current president of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification. “That’s completely different than a teacher who has a Web site and walks down the hall at school saying to kids, ‘Hey, hey, have you seen my Web site?’ ”

In Texas, where Doug D. Phillips directs the investigations of school staff misconduct for the state education agency, “almost all” the cases that involve allegations of sex abuse, he said, include digital communications via the Web or cellphones. “Suddenly an educator has all the opportunity in the world to have direct contact with a student outside the school setting,” he said. “They don’t have to call the home directly anymore and hang up when the parent answers. They can just send the kid a text message.”

Ms. McGrath, the education lawyer, said most of the “grooming process” through which abusers gain students’ trust still happens at school. But she said the technology has made it easier for predators to pursue their victims continually.

“They can get at them 24 hours a day if they want,” she said. “And they use the technology in a way that makes them appear to be a peer to students.”

Investigative Tool

At the same time, the widespread use of such digital communications has also helped bring some of the cases to light, and when investigated, often provides evidence for both state education authorities who must weigh whether to revoke an educator’s license and law-enforcement authorities who may prosecute an offender in court.

In Vermont, for example, the mother of a 12-year-old boy discovered a naked photograph of her son attached to a text message on his cellphone earlier this year, said Mark Oettinger, the general counsel for the Vermont Department of Education.

The message and photo were allegedly sent by Richard A. Foster, a 6th grade teacher at the boy’s elementary school in Bradford, Vt. The mother’s discovery eventually led to state and federal charges against Mr. Foster, who is accused of molesting children and using some of his students as models in the manufacturing of homemade child pornography.

“These technological communications, in my mind, have provided a treasure trove of investigative material that better documents the inappropriate conduct of educators,” said Bart Zabin, the principal investigator for the office of school personnel review and accountability in the New York state education department. “In the past, so many of these cases were hampered by one person’s word against another person’s, which made it very difficult for investigators.”

Now, Mr. Zabin said, e-mail correspondence, cellphone records, and Internet communications have become a part of almost every investigation. They are particularly valuable, he said, in cases where the alleged victim will not talk to investigators.

“This kind of evidence has allowed us to establish wrongdoing in several cases even when we did not have a direct witness,” he said. “In many ways, it’s helping us root out people who might not otherwise have been [caught].”

That could have been the case with the high school guidance counselor in New Jersey.

Ms. McGrath said the woman had been a teacher, and had been accused of inappropriate behavior toward a student during a school dance earlier in her career.

“The solution then was to take her out of the classroom and make her a counselor,” Ms. McGrath said. This time, she said, the trail of text messages the counselor left helped prove that the abuse had taken place.

The counselor, who resigned quickly after the allegations surfaced, has paid some damages to the victim and struck a plea agreement with local prosecutors, Ms. McGrath said. The school district also agreed to pay the boy and his family a “hefty” sum, she said.

“But no amount of money can compensate him for the long-term effects this has had on him,” Ms. McGrath said. “He, like so many others, felt he was in love and lost his ‘best friend’ when the abuse came to light. To this day he grapples with whether the abuse was his fault, and he has lost his faith in people and in himself.”

Research librarian Rachael Holovach contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Digital Age Adds New Dimension To Incidents of Staff-Student Sex

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