Technology’s role increasing in Utah teacher misconduct
Education • Utah officials debate how to deal with misconduct, especially the rise in sexual crimes linked to technology, social media.
Published: December 2, 2013 03:43PM
Updated: February 14, 2014 11:43PM
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( AP file photo)

The case of Utah educator Charles Edward Weber is nightmarish.

When the former principal of Soldier Hollow Charter School pleaded guilty in April to two felony charges involving sexual abuse of a 15-year-old student, he had amassed what one prosecutor called “a vast array of prior perpetrations” during a 40-year teaching career.

Weber, 66, used his position of authority to find and groom victims, targeting boys in need of help or special services and demanding sexual favors in return, authorities said. Now serving 10 years in prison, the educator faced a fresh round of charges in July as more alleged victims came forward.

Few cases are as egregious. But sexual misconduct by Utah teachers continues to make headlines even after years of policy debates, legislative crackdowns and demands for action, training and new ways to attack the problem.

Sexual activity involving students now accounts for about 22 percent of pending teacher licensing investigations, leading all other types of misbehavior, with financial improprieties a close second. Officials note, though, that sex cases tend to remain open longer while police and school authorities investigate the details.

The latest data show the state hit a 10-year high in 2012 for internal state Office of Education investigations of licensing complaints of all types against teachers. The 67 cases last year ranged from sexual transgressions to fiscal mismanagement, inappropriate computer use including accessing porn, violent behavior and use of drugs or alcohol.

While Weber’s case did not directly involve technology, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis shows tools such as cellphones, texting and social media are increasingly a factor in teacher misconduct cases. Experts say digital exchanges allow problem teachers to breach appropriate boundaries with students outside of parental view.

As a new generation grows up online, clear rules are becoming more difficult to nail down. The 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 who officially run afoul of professional standards for a range of bad behaviors represent a tiny slice — approximately two-tenths of 1 percent — of roughly 31,600 licensed educators in Utah schools.

Yet even 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.”

Targeting misbehavior • State law automatically and permanently revokes licenses for teachers convicted of criminal sexual activity with a minor.

Utah’s approach is more nuanced for teachers accused of off-color remarks, inappropriate touching, after-hours relationships and questionable crossing of other boundaries. Those cases usually lead to licensing suspensions for several years, with strict requirements such as counseling before authorities hold a hearing to decide whether a teacher can re-enter the classroom.

Several legislative audits and major state reports — including one issued three years ago — have targeted public school teacher misbehavior, focusing on high-profile cases of sexual activity with students. Today, 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.”

‘Already been intimacies’ • 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, according to The Tribune analysis of nearly 400 state licensing actions back to 1993. That’s up from under a third of such cases six years ago.

Investigators confirm that texting or email is now almost always involved early on in situations that lead to sexual contact between teachers and students.

“There’s a feeling of safety from the teacher’s perspective in engaging in communication behind this vast void of the cyberworld that then makes it much easier to exit cyberworld and enter a physical relationship with someone,” said Heidi Alder, a licensing investigator with the state Office of Education. “It’s already been broken down. There’s already been intimacies established.”

In one recent case, a popular Utah high school football coach and a female student exchanged as many as 45 text messages in one day, before the coach resigned abruptly in May 2012 without public explanation. Granite School District officials said allegations of “inappropriate contact” led Josh Lyman to step down as a teacher and head football coach at Cottonwood High School.

A Tribune open-records request revealed that Lyman, now 32, and the female student, then 18, exchanged at least 98 messages between November 2011 and Jan. 27, 2012, the final date of phone records provided by the student’s family to the school district as part of an investigation.

The student later told district investigators that in at least one of the texts, Lyman invited her to his house. “I went,” she said, “because I didn’t know what to do.”

Lyman kissed her while she was there, she said in her statement, and after she left, he sent her a picture of himself with his shirt off. She described subsequent text messages as “flirty.”

During other encounters, the student described Lyman sitting next to her in the hot tub at an off-campus gym and putting his hand down her pants, though Lyman’s attorney noted her statements were not made under oath.

Salt Lake County prosecutors who reviewed the case found “evidence of contact between the student and Lyman,” but determined it was not criminal. Utah’s age of consent is 18.

Lyman did not resign because he was guilty of the allegations, his attorney Ed Brass said, but rather because “he no longer had the energy or desire to proceed with this matter so he decided to move on with his life.”

Lyman’s Utah teaching licensing, meanwhile, was suspended for at least five years.

Rules vary • Education officials said they repeatedly stress to teachers the importance of maintaining professional relationships and appropriate boundaries with children. But there are no iron-clad rules on texting and use of social media.

Among Utah’s 41 districts and 91 charter schools that do have policies regarding cellphone exchanges or use of sites such as Facebook and Twitter, they vary widely.

Ben Horsley, a Granite School District spokesman, said his district has no policy specifically addressing text messages. It does, however, have one that “covers inappropriate communications or interactions with students and also governs private interactions.”

Nationally, little solid research has been done on educators using social media in sexual misconduct, said Frederick Lane, a New York City-based attorney and author. His book “Cyber Traps for the Young” details how kids commit crimes made possible by the Internet. He is working on a similarly themed “Cyber Traps for Educators.”

“This is an area where there is not very good record-keeping or consistency of policy,” Lane said. The number of damaging incidents related to social media is not large, he said, but “the trend is, there’s a growing problem.”

Training gaps remain • Three years after a major state review of teacher misconduct, led by former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Patti Harrington, Utah lags behind on its own goals for a system of comprehensive ethics, social and situational training for teachers, including in-depth online courses and handbook materials.

Although basic legal training is a condition for getting or renewing a teaching license in Utah, key players in the debate agree that wide gaps remain, especially in the area of technology and social media.

“I’m concerned about the time, resources and ... emphasis on punishment rather than a more collaborative and preventative approach to focus resources on training and rehabilitation,” said Tracey Watson, attorney for the Utah Education Association, the state’s main teachers union.

“Teachers are in a position of trust and even the ones that run into problems and become my clients, all they want to do is help kids,” Watson said. “That is the common theme.”

Turning teachers in • Other efforts to address the worst cases of teacher misconduct have been pushed for years, with mixed results.

The Harrington report highlighted a breakdown in reporting by school districts. Local school officials, the study said, sometimes handle serious misconduct with reprimands, job sanctions, by moving teachers to other schools or even firing them, all without passing information on to state licensing authorities. In several instances, the practice has allowed problem teachers to keep their licenses and seek employment elsewhere.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, a resignation might have led to an incident not being reported,” said John Robson, an attorney representing several of Utah’s largest school districts. But, he said, such cases are rare today.

Since late 2010, the state has offered online forms for confidential reporting of teacher misconduct, though it does not launch full investigations for complaints filed anonymously.

Tracking criminal behavior • A legislative audit in 2009 highlighted 17 school employees with troubling criminal convictions. And after several halting attempts over almost a decade, Utah put a system in place in 2010 for fingerprinting and running background checks to help school districts identify teachers with prior criminal histories.

A database available to the state Office of Education is now integrated with records kept by the state Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Criminal Identification, although data collection focuses on newly hired teachers, with long-standing educators being added to the system gradually.

Thus far, according to Carol Lear, a state office attorney who has overseen implementation and use of the system, it has not detected widespread incidence of hidden criminal pasts among Utah teachers. Then again, not all misconduct carries an early warning sign.

Weber, the Soldier Hollow Charter School principal, had no prior convictions. His crimes went reported until a former student, now 48, contacted police about alleged abuse at the teacher’s hands in the mid-1970s, when the victim was 11.

The Harrington report, issued in 2010, also called for a rule that educators report to their district superintendent if they’re arrested. State policy now gives them 48 hours.

Of a sample of 46 teachers who faced expedited licensing hearings between January 2012 and May 2013, only 28 percent had reported their own arrests, according to the May newsletter of the Utah Professional Practices Advisory Commission, which reviews potential licensing actions against teachers.

Self-reporting rates have risen dramatically over the past six months, other statistics show.

Reporters Bill Oram and Ray Parker contributed to this story.

Join us for a Trib Talk

O Join Jennifer Napier-Pearce Monday at 12:15 p.m. for a live Trib Talk video chat at sltrib.com during which she’ll talk about proposed changes to Utah’s teacher conduct rules with Utah Board of Education members Jennifer A. Johnson and Kim Burningham, and reporter Tony Semerad. You can join the discussion by sending questions and comments to the hashtag #TribTalk on Twitter and Google+.

Coming Monday

Utah’s education policymakers are divided over whether proposed changes to teacher conduct rules go too far.