Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Should Teacher-Student Texting be Prohibited?

Salacious news sells well. So recent reports that two middle-aged female school teachers at a northern Utah school each had sexual liaisons with the same 13-year-old male student have generated a lot of public interest.

The vast majority of pedophiles being ‘corrected’ by our justice system are male. But females can be pedophiles as well. This is the reason that any organization where adult-child interaction is part of the program and/or where adults are placed in positions of trust or responsibility over children must employ tactics designed to minimize the opportunity for inappropriate relations. For example, the Boy Scouts now prohibits any one-on-one interaction between an adult and a child at any BSA event (except for parent-child).

Public attitudes are changing, but there is still a difference in the mind of most people when it comes to relationships between adult males and children, and relationships between adult females and children. In effect, a male in such a relationship is regarded as having a higher level of culpability than a female, regardless of the relative ages of the individuals involved.

Recently, when a male teacher at a local junior high school engaged in an inappropriate relationship with a female student, the public roundly despised the man. The lovesick schoolgirl was only a victim. But when a pretty teacher in Florida was found to have been having sexual relationships with male students, there was a perception that the boys were having their way with the teacher. In both situations, adults abused their position of trust to entice children into improper relationships.

In the case of the two female junior high school teachers and the 13-year-old boy, a fair amount of personal and erotic texting went on between teacher and student. A friend of mine suggested that the boy bore a lot of blame for this. I responded that the boy no doubt behaved entirely inappropriately, but that the teachers — each of whom was old enough to be the boy’s mother — had a duty to see to the boy’s welfare rather than satisfying their own lusts with the confused lad.

Imagine, I said, if I were to receive texts of a personal nature from a 13-year-old girl. What would be the proper course of action? My friend admitted that the answer was quite clear. I should involve suitable adult parties to make sure the girl got the help she needed. The very moment I encouraged the girl’s improper behavior, I would be wrong, both legally and morally. It is no different for these two teachers.

Having worked with youth groups most of my life, I have come to understand that some adults are good with youth because they relate to them on a peer-to-peer basis rather than an adult-to-child basis. Young people often adore and flock to such adults. When this is coupled with a position of trust, it presents broad opportunity for abuse. We are coming to recognize that even if a child welcomes romantic attention from an adult, the adult is wrong for pursuing such. Indeed, the adult is wrong for not putting a stop to it and getting help for the child.

Since the criminal activities of these two abusive teachers have come to light, there have been fresh calls for the banning of all text messaging between teachers and students (see St-Ex editorial). It is difficult for schools and other organizations to keep regulations current with rapidly evolving communication technologies. Should schools implement a zero tolerance policy for texting between teachers and students? Is it ever appropriate for teachers and students to text each other directly?

Several comments on the St-Ex article suggest that banning all texting between teachers and students would be an overreaction. Texting students might be appropriate for “teachers chaperoning field trips and track meets and other outings,” for example.

One St-Ex commenter suggests “a rule requiring any texting or emailing or photo -sending by teacher to student to be copied to” appropriate authorities. (How about copying to students’ parents? How about a requirement to forward to the proper authorities any message a teacher receives from a student?) “Any text/email/photo not so copied would be presumed inappropriate and lead to disciplinary action.” Maybe different contact rules would be appropriate for different student age groups.

Zero tolerance policies almost always end up causing inappropriate discipline and broad punishment of the people that play by the rules. So I am reluctant to advocate elimination of all texting between teachers and students. Rather, I think input from teachers, administrators, students, and parents should be sought regarding this issue. Then appropriate policies should be crafted at the appropriate level to mitigate the problems in the least onerous method.


Charles D said...

We can't really turn back the clock to the good old days when we had to actually write notes and try to pass them without being seen by the teacher. But is there really a valid reason that a normal student needs a cell phone during the school day? Sure there could be circumstances where it would be appropriate, but they are rare.

Teachers who lust after students and can't control themselves will find a way to satisfy those urges regardless of technology, but IMHO the best way to prevent teacher-student texting and student-student texting is to insist that kids put the cell phone in their locker before home room and leave it there.

Scott Hinrichs said...

The schools our kids attend prohibit use of cell phones (and personal media devices) during school hours. There are some exceptions. For example, the high school allows students to use devices during lunch. In all of our children's schools, students can go to the office and get permission to use their phone for approved purposes (in the confines of the office).

In the cases I discussed, the teacher-student cell phone contact occurred outside of school hours. In some cases this involved thousands of text messages and many phone calls. Newer technologies (personal phone, text, twitter, Facebook, email) allow predatory teachers unprecedented opportunities to have contact with a student away from the school and out of public view. So it is important to provide some guidelines to circumvent inappropriate adult-child communication.

You are correct that we can't go back to the old days and that predators will always find ways to exploit callow youth. But parents can (and should) also be on top of this. I can download a spreadsheet of all of my children's phone and text contacts. I can sort the list and see which numbers have high contact rates and what times of day these contacts are occurring. I guess I am saying that new technologies also provide more tools for discovery than have ever been available to parents in the past.