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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.
First Published Dec 01 2013 01:01 am • Last Updated Feb 14 2014 11:43 pm

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.

At a glance

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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.

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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.

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