Schools work to stop the wrong messages with technology

TUPELO – Technology creates new possibilities in education. But when misused, it can also create new dangers.
One set of dangers has become more apparent in Northeast Mississippi this school year. Three teachers have lost their jobs because of inappropriate text messages sent to students.
One of those teachers was accused of sexting, the practice of sending sexually explicit images or text messages via cell phone.
Sexting is a growing national trend that, when coupled with social networking sites that allow for explicit photographs and interactions, creates a potential landmine for students and teachers.
But even if it’s milder form, the new forms of communication can be hazardous.
“This behavior has always been there with teachers and students, but the ability to monitor it wasn’t,” said Dr. Peggy Smith, director of the Baylor University Teen Health Clinic.
“So now with better monitoring tools we see more people being caught. When I was young, note passing was the thing, and that’s how we got information across, but now the click of a send button can launch your message from person to person and that’s where the problems come in at.”
In late September, Bobby Hill, an assistant football coach at Itawamba Agricultural High School, was arrested and fired after allegedly sending a sexually explicit photo of himself to a female student at the school.
But the dangerous interaction between students and teachers via technology isn’t limited to sexually explicit images or messages.
Personal messages sent between teachers and students can also be inappropriate and have caused two other Northeast Mississippi teachers to lose jobs recently.
Hope Johns, an English teacher at Saltillo High School, was arrested on sexual battery charges for an alleged sexual relationship with a male student at school and was fired from her job at the school.
Johns was originally suspended by the school district for sending inappropriate text messages to the student.
Saltillo High School assistant band director Tim Ferguson resigned from his job at the school because of allegations of inappropriate text messages.
“If you look at the inappropriate relationships that have developed between staff and students over the last four or five years, every single one of them was characterized by an extended text message relationship,” said Jim Keith, attorney for the Mississippi School Board Association.
As a result of similar cases throughout the country, Keith has advised dozens of schools across the state to be proactive against teacher-student texting.
As a result, many schools are writing new policies.
Last week, Lee County Schools passed the first approval of a new staff-student non-fraternization plan that among other things prohibits staff members from participating in student blogs and from posting information on social networking Web sites that would disrupt classroom activity.
“We want our employees and our students to have the protection they need,” Lee County Superintendent Mike Scott said.
Itawamba County Schools are also working on crafting an official policy prohibiting personal text messaging between staff and students, Superintendent Teresa McNeece said.
Tupelo Public School District policy prohibits employees from personal electronic communication with students for reasons unrelated to instruction or official school business.
Other districts prohibit or discourage one-on-one text messages. When teachers or coaches need to text students in the New Albany School District, they are instructed to send the message to a group of students with the principal or athletic director copied on the message.
The policy is similar in Union County Schools and Monroe County Schools.
New Albany Superintendent Charles Garrett said his district encourages teachers and coaches to use Twitter to send messages to students and parents. The advantage of Twitter, he said, is that messages aren’t sent to individuals but to public groups.
While school boards deal with employment and discipline issues that arise from the interactive technology, sexters also face legal issues, especially if they are teachers.
Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson said that when a teacher sends sexual messages to a student, the law looks at it much more seriously than it does for others.
“The law looks at that teacher as a person who is in a position of trust, and those people are held at a higher regard,” Johnson said. “That includes teacher, police, firemen and military personnel.”
Johnson said if adults who are not in trust positions send nude photos of themselves to teens age 16 or older, it’s not a crime. But if that person is in a position of trust, then it’s a crime up until age 18.
Not all of the problems can be blamed on cell phones and sites like Facebook and My Space, Keith said.
He believes part of the problem is the gradual disappearance of barriers between students and adults.
“When I was a young person, I didn’t think about being buddies with an adult,” Keith said. “In today’s world, that doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue, and students don’t have as much of a problem emailing or texting a teacher or adding a teacher as a friend on Facebook.
“As a result, these lines are blurred even more and all it takes is a student infatuation with a teacher, and if the teachers don’t put up boundaries right away, they can get caught up in it.”

Contact Danza Johnson at (662)678-1583 or at danza.johnson@djournal.com. Contact Chris Kieffer at (662) 678-1590 or at chris.kieffer@djournal.com.

Danza Johnson and Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal