Mon, Oct 06, 2014 - Page 12 News List

Social media’s darker side

Two sexual abuse cases in as many weeks highlight the growing number of students being lured in by teachers who groom them using social media

By Kate Zernike  /  NY Times News Service, Maplewood, New Jersey

High school students, who commonly use text messaging and social media to communicate with their teachers for homework assignments and other school-related tasks, are reluctant to report instances of sexual abuse out of fear that it will get the perpetrator in trouble.

Photo: EPA

The allegations of teachers’ preying on students have come from two very different New York-area high schools in the past two weeks: one in this well-off suburb, the other at a selective school in the heart of Brooklyn. In one case, a woman is accused of having sex with five boys; in the other, it is a man, accused of crossing the line with seven girls.

Both were teachers who seemed more like friends, known for giving easy A’s. And both cases are defined by technology: Prosecutors say the adults groomed the students using text messages. They sent sexually provocative pictures on the Snapchat app, believing them to be private. In Maplewood, the teacher apparently allowed sex with one boy to be captured on video, which students then circulated in the hallways.

Schools have struggled with teacher-student relationships probably forever and most famously since Mary Kay Letourneau was arrested in Washington state in 1997 for having sex with a 12-year-old student.

GAME CHANGER

But only recently have schools had to deal with relationships enabled by new technology. In the past five years, many schools have responded with social media policies. Last year, a West Virginia district banned any personal texting between teachers and students; three years ago, Missouri passed a law barring teachers from using any “non-work-related Internet site which allows access” to past or current students.

Parents and school administrators alike fear it has become harder to maintain boundaries when teachers routinely give out their cellphone numbers to talk about homework. And a new generation of teachers has grown up communicating primarily through the Internet or texting, where divisions between work and private life easily blur.

“This is an American problem more than a Maplewood problem,” said Kate McCaffrey, the mother of a Columbia High School student here who alerted school officials last spring when she heard that the teacher arrested in September, Nicole Dufault, had sent naked pictures of herself to a student on Snapchat. “The teachers say to the students, ‘Any problem, feel free to call me.’”

“The children are living in this social media world that the adults don’t get,” McCaffrey added.

Texting and social media have made it easier for teachers to get directly to students, but can also make sexual misconduct easier to prosecute. In Maplewood and in Brooklyn, parents have used the cases to argue how hard it is to get rid of bad teachers. But tenured teachers can be fired for immoral conduct, and texts and videos can make that plain.

“The Internet allows things that were previously hidden and hard to see to come to light,” said David Finkelhor, the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire. “In the old days, if the inappropriate activities started with the gym teacher putting his hands on the student’s breasts, if she was uncomfortable and went to tell somebody about it, it might not go anywhere, or he would say, ‘No, she was mistaken.’ If he sends a picture of himself in his underwear or says something sexually provocative in a text exchange, that’s easier to prosecute and easier for the young people or their parents to bring to official attention.”

NEW POLICIES

New York City schools adopted a social media policy two years ago after several teachers were arrested on accusations of inappropriate sexual contact with students. The policy barred teachers from contacting students on Web sites like Twitter and Facebook but did not address contact by text message or cellphone. And complaints of sexual misconduct have risen each year since, according to city records.

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