School officials everywhere are debating how to deal with teacher misconduct, and especially the rise in sexual crimes linked to technology and social media. A new analysis by The Salt Lake Tribune reveals that tools such as cellphones, texting, and social media are increasingly a factor in teacher misconduct cases.
The study shows that computer use and exchanges via email, texting, and social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter are an element in two of every five teacher misconduct cases with a sexual component these days. The study analyzed nearly 400 state licensing actions back to 1993. According to investigators, texting or email is now almost always involved early on in situations that lead to sexual contact between teachers and students, writes Tony Semerad of The Salt Lake Tribune.
According to experts, digital exchanges allow problem teachers to breach appropriate boundaries with students outside of parental view. Sexual activity involving students now accounts for about 22% of pending teacher licensing investigations, leading all other types of misbehavior.
The latest data shows that the state hit a 10-year high in 2012 for internal state Office of Education investigations of licensing complaints of all types against teachers. Last year, the 67 cases ranged from sexual transgressions to fiscal mismanagement, inappropriate computer use including accessing porn, violent behavior, and use of drugs or alcohol.
Students are increasingly using the internet, chat rooms, smartphones, computers, tablets and other digital devices inside and outside classrooms. The new online trend is forcing hard questions on how to retain the value of devices such as smartphones as teaching tools while preventing their misuse.
"We're all running to create guidelines to keep up with this rapidly moving field," said Leslie Castle, a Utah Board of Education member pressing for tougher punishment of errant educators.
Teachers involved in misconduct represent a tiny slice — about two-tenths of 1 percent — of roughly 31,600 licensed educators in Utah schools. However, a single instance of sexual violation by an authority figure can alter a child's life irrevocably.
"The fundamental betrayal of trust can cause significant emotional harm to a victim, even if the abuse only occurred one time," said Chris Anderson, executive director of MaleSurvivor, a group focused on preventing and healing sexual victimization of boys and men. "Sadly," Anderson said, "it can often take decades for us to know the true scale of the harm done to a survivor."
Utah law automatically and permanently revokes licenses for teachers convicted of criminal sexual activity with a minor. Several legislative audits and major state reports have targeted public school teacher misbehavior, focusing on high-profile cases of sexual activity with students. Currently, educator misconduct is driving one of the sharpest debates in recent years among the state's 21-member school board.
"There is not a single board member who isn't concerned about protecting children," said Debra Roberts, the board's chairwoman. "But you also have to honor the law and due process, and honoring both of those things is where we're trying to get."
According to education officials, teachers should maintain professional relationships and appropriate boundaries with children. However, they believe that there are no iron-clad rules on texting and use of social media.
Ben Horsley, a Granite School District spokesman, said his district has no policy specifically addressing text messages.