Crossing the line online: When teacher-student exchanges become improper

Technology, social media provide easy pathway for inappropriate teacher-student relationships — underscored by the cases of two Pierce County educators charged recently with sexual misconduct

Staff writerMarch 23, 2014 

Texting takes just a few seconds. Maybe a tad longer if you’re tapping a tiny phone keyboard while drunk.

But writing an old-fashioned letter of apology about those texts takes considerably more time — and 10 pages of neatly lettered notebook paper.

Such a letter, from former Lincoln High School teacher Meredith Powell to the girlfriend of one of her students, is contained in documents released by Tacoma Public Schools as part of its investigation into the 24-year-old math teacher’s alleged misconduct.

In it, Powell wrote she was sorry for behaving badly: “Obviously nothing physical or emotional ever happened between (the boy) and I, nor would it ever, but the fact that we ever text at all about non-school related things, or that we ever sent inappropriate messages, under joking pretenses or not, was completely unprofessional, inappropriate & wrong.”

Pierce County prosecutors allege Powell was doing far more than drunk texting with some of her male students.

Hers was one of two back-to-back cases in February in which Pierce County teachers were charged with sexual misconduct.

In both cases, technology didn’t directly cause the alleged inappropriate behavior but may have abetted it.

Court documents accuse Powell of misconduct with three boys, ages 15 to 17. The allegations range from kissing, groping and oral sex in her Lincoln classroom to sending out pictures of herself in the bathtub and in bed through an application called Snapchat, designed to deliver images that disappear from a recipient’s electronic device in seconds.

She pleaded not guilty last month to two counts of third-degree child rape and one count of communication with a minor for immoral purposes. She quit her job and surrendered her teaching license.

In the other case, 33-year-old former Curtis High School biology teacher Michael E. Allen pleaded not guilty to charges that stem from what prosecutors allege was a sexual relationship with a 17-year-old female student.

Court and University Place School District records point to a relationship fueled by text messages and cellphone calls. According to a report by the school district’s attorney, Allen logged 1,972 minutes connecting with the girl’s cellphone between Nov. 20 and Jan. 16, and they exchanged more than 2,436 text messages between Dec. 19 and Feb. 11.

Allen pleaded not guilty last month to five counts of sexual misconduct with a minor. He also resigned his position.

His misbehavior allegedly did not stop there, nor did his use of technology to secretly continue his relationship with the girl. Last week, Allen was charged with violating a court order to avoid contacting her.

Court documents say that after Allen was released on bail in February, he used a Twitter account to communicate with a friend of the girl. According to documents, the friend told detectives that Allen used her as an intermediary to give a pre-paid cellphone to the girl. The girl’s mother said she caught her daughter talking on a cellphone, and the girl admitted talking to Allen and meeting with him once, according to court records.

Terri Miller, who heads a Nevada-based national organization aimed at preventing teacher sexual misconduct, said technology is playing a growing role in such cases.

“Before there were cellphones and social media, there was limited access (between students and teachers),” said Miller, president of SESAME: Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation. “Now, with 24/7 access, it’s presenting a huge problem.”

Tacoma Public Schools attorney Shannon McMinimee said that in nearly every instance of staff sexual misconduct the school district has investigated in recent years, “there has been some form of inappropriate communications via electronic means.”

TWITTER ‘FRIENDS’

According to court and school district records in Allen’s case, the girl told investigators she first got the teacher’s phone number from another student, and that she called and texted Allen.

“They began calling and texting each other, and that progressed to them running and walking together,” according to a University Place police report.

The pair then turned from running partners into sexual partners, complete with make-out sessions in the carport at the girl’s home, according to police and prosecutors.

A University Place mom first emailed school officials about Allen’s alleged behavior, saying the teacher had been seen leaving a student’s house.

But even before she mentioned the house call, the mom raised an alarm of a different sort: “There is a teacher at the school who has students as ‘friends’ on his Twitter account. Is this OK with school policy?”

It was not.

Allen told an attorney hired by the School District to look into his behavior that he tweeted homework assignments and responded to students’ tweets. But he said he had deleted the account.

The attorney’s report said Allen stated that about 80 current and former students followed him on Twitter, and that he followed students’ own Twitter feeds.

“Mr. Allen admitted to me that these Tweets did not have any educational value or legitimate professional purpose,” the attorney wrote.

The attorney uncovered student tweets from or to Allen in student timelines. While some messages related to course work, others contained messages from kids in typical teen vernacular: “ILYSM (I love you so much)” and “BFFs (Best friends forever).”

A student told the attorney that she and other girls found Allen “super attractive” and started following him on Twitter. Two female students posed with him for a “selfie” self-portrait, then posted the picture on Instagram. One student shot short videos of Allen, including one in which he attempts to catch a piece of candy in his mouth.

According to the report, he admitted taking part in the calls with the 17-year-old girl. But he said he didn’t know the identity of the person on the other end. He said a female had begun calling him in November, and that he thought the anonymous caller was a Curtis graduate.

The attorney’s report said that after school officials placed Allen on leave during their investigation, Allen and the girl stayed in contact via text. They talked about the conversations they’d had with investigators.

Among the excerpts:

Her: What kind of lawyer did you already talk to? When I talk to the police should I say nothing more than I already have? I was never going to say we had sex or anything.

Him: I know, but just talking about it with a minor I believe is cause to be arrested. I’m not sure though. Did we ever say that we did or were going to?

Her: We did say we loved each other, though.

Him: Yes but that’s not sexting. I don’t know if we actually sexted.

POLICIES FORBID IT

Experts say texting, tweeting and social media forums such as Facebook and Instagram create an environment that is both intimate and impersonal. While users offer up their innermost feelings, the screen creates a buffer — and a false sense of privacy — that lets them say or show things they might wish they hadn’t.

“People tend to say things on Facebook and Twitter that they would never think of saying if they were face to face,” said SESAME’s Miller. “Boundaries become very skewed when you are not looking at that child in the face.”

More states are passing laws aimed at preventing sexual abuse by educators. Miller calls Washington — where it’s illegal for school employees to have sex with a student, even if the student is 18 and the sex consensual — one of the more progressive.

Both Tacoma and University Place school districts have policies that prohibit teachers and students from sharing private contact information. Teachers who violate policy are subject to discipline or dismissal.

Both districts offer regular training on the subject. Both Powell and Allen had gone through their district’s training, although Allen allegedly discounted its value in his interview with the School District’s investigative attorney.

“The training did not impress on me the need to be professional,” Allen said, according to the attorney’s notes from their exchange.

University Place labels it a “boundary invasion” for teachers to maintain personal contact with students outside school by phone, email, chat rooms and similar means “particularly if the parent/guardian is not copied on the communication.”

Tacoma says teachers maintaining contact by electronic means outside school or sending messages unrelated to school work is unacceptable conduct that can invoke discipline or firing.

Tacoma further advises: “Staff should use school email addresses and phone numbers, and the parents’ phone numbers, for communications with students, except in an emergency situation.”

Coaches and student body advisers might have Twitter accounts so they can communicate legitimate activity-related messages to groups of students, said Tacoma’s McMinimee.

“But they can’t ‘follow’ kids or ‘friend’ them,” she said. “And they are not supposed to use direct messaging. It has to be open.”

She said one reason for clear policies and frequent training is to protect the innocent, as well as smoke out the guilty.

She points to cases of inadvertent problems, such as the Tacoma teacher who accidentally linked his personal and school online calendars, allowing students to glimpse embarrassing information about his personal life. Or, there’s a possibility a teacher could accidentally send a sexy message due to a device’s “autocorrect” feature.

“We want to make sure the truly innocent have a chance to go on with their life,” McMinimee said.

A WORLD OF TEXTING

Like many teens and young adults, 18-year-old Wilson High School senior Sabrina Wilson believes it sometimes can be easier to text than talk.

“You can’t always call someone,” she said. “Everybody’s really busy.”

Wilson sees texting for teens as a kind of guilty pleasure. While she prefers face-to-face communication, she said many teens feel compelled to share details of their lives through texts.

Younger parents and early-career teachers also have grown up as “digital natives.” For them, texting is as natural as talking.

Whether they’re comfortable with the technology or not, teachers today are being pushed to embrace it as a way to connect with students and the world in which they dwell.

Two tech-savvy Tacoma teachers agreed to talk anonymously to The News Tribune about some of the issues raised when teachers and kids text.

Both women said it’s relatively easy for a student to obtain a teacher’s cellphone number, such as through a parent or a parent’s phone.

One teacher said she gives her number to parents as a precaution when she takes students on field trips. Another said she was part of her school’s PTA, and parents needed a way to contact her.

Sometimes texting is the only way a teacher can communicate with a student or family. Not every family has email or a computer, one teacher said, but even families of modest means usually have a text-enabled phone.

One teacher said she kept in touch with a homeless elementary school student via text — with the full knowledge of her boss.

“He slept in a parking lot, in a car. He was from a gang-involved family,” she said. Texting a trusted teacher kept him connected to school, and the student is now in high school.

Just as cellphones have their place, using social media can be a powerful educational tool.

Some classrooms in Tacoma are experimenting with a “bring your own device” approach to education. Students are asked to take phones, iPods and other electronic tools to class so they can access educational materials or take part in class projects.

New schools are being designed with USB ports inside student lockers.

But teachers can be torn. Some are simply not part of “generation text.” Others worry that they will run afoul of district rules or leave themselves open to false accusations.

Still, one teacher said, it’s easy for well-intentioned teachers to stay within the boundary lines. They can tell the difference, she said, between “a reasonable text, as opposed to a creepy text.”

PROS AND CONS OF BANS

Miller, of SESAME, would like to see states enact an outright ban on teachers sharing private contact information.

“There is no reason for educators and students to be communicating privately through private cellphones or Facebook,” she said.

Others would not take such a hard line.

Frank LoMonte, director of the national Student Press Law Center, said teachers have a legitimate need to meet students where they are — and these days, that’s in cyberspace.

He said it’s important at least to consider First Amendment rights any time a government agency tries to regulate what public employees say and how they say it.

“I would hesitate to adopt a blanket rule that says under no circumstances may a teacher engage in (those kinds of) communications,” LoMonte said. “Sometimes, that communication is a lifeline.”

A few years ago Missouri enacted a law that attempted to ban private messaging between students and teachers. It was repealed because of protests over free-speech rights.

LoMonte said “people raised a host of practical problems about why it was unenforceable.”

Troy Hutchings, a former high school teacher in Arizona who now studies teacher misconduct, said asking teachers to “Just Say No” to social media is unrealistic. Instead, he argues that teachers must learn the fundamentals of how to use powerful electronic tools wisely.

Attorney Fred Lane of New York is a member of SESAME’s advisory board and an expert on the legal and ethical minefields social media can create. His next book, due out this spring, is called “Cybertraps for Educators.”

He believes education is only now beginning to embrace the importance of social media and the role it plays in students’ and teachers’ lives.

“I believe strongly in the need to incorporate cyber-citizenship into every level of the curriculum — from kindergarten on up,” Lane said.

Federal law and Washington state policies require students to have instruction about safe online and social networking behavior. In Tacoma, school librarians teach those concepts to students.

Lane said educators must be cautious in allowing extracurricular contact with students.

“Teachers want to reach out to kids using the means by which kids are communicating,” Lane says. “I understand that. But at the moment, the risks outweigh the benefits.”

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635
debbie.cafazzo@thenewstribune.com
@DebbieCafazzo

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