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"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.
Join us for a Trib TalkJoin 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+.
Utah’s education policymakers are divided over whether proposed changes to teacher conduct rules go too far.
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."
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