Posted: Oct 14, 2012 5:43 PM
Updated: Oct 14, 2012 5:44 PM
DALLAS (AP) As accusations of educators having inappropriate relationships with students become more common in Texas, many teachers are changing how they interact with kids cutting back on mentoring and after-school communications.
The increase has been linked in part to technology cellphones, texting and social networking that provides teachers easy contact with students and offers investigators computerized footprints to use as evidence.
An inappropriate relationship with a student does not mean sexual contact or a crime. Some Dallas teachers who have been accused say they were mentoring students or helping them through life's hurdles when they bought a student clothes, paid a cellphone bill or treated some kids to dinner, The Dallas Morning News reported (http://dallasne.ws/RnAlus).
But experts warn that these inappropriate relationships can cause psychological harm to the students even when sex isn't involved.
"It demonstrates to this child that there really aren't boundaries. ... And there's harm to the rest of the class in wondering why the teacher is playing favorites," said Charol Shakeshaft, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who has studied sexual abuse in schools for the U.S. Department of Education.
The Texas Education Agency opened 156 cases of educators accused of having inappropriate relationships with students or minors the last fiscal year. That number has increased steadily from 86 in 2007-08, according to the agency. The numbers are derived from the most egregious cases, which school districts are required to report.
The total number of inappropriate relationships investigated in the state's 1,030 school districts is unknown, as districts typically only have to report cases resulting in an employee's resignation, termination or arrest on suspicion of a serious offense.
Schools are increasingly warning educators to be careful in their interactions with students such as not texting or communicating on Facebook and avoiding being alone with a student outside of school even if their intentions are good.
Teacher Randy Scott said he no longer responds to students who email him in the evening; he knows investigators pay attention to the time of communication. He isn't covering up anything but fears being falsely accused, he said.
Child abuse expert Julie Brand said that a teacher who has an inappropriate relationship with a student won't necessarily sexually abuse the child. But, she added, almost all sex offenders in positions of trust such as teachers "often spend lots of time 'grooming' them, earning their trust and often work to earn the trust of the student's parents as well."
School districts fear being liable if children are harmed or abused and are creating policies that focus on electronic media.
Former Dallas science teacher Tony Dickensheets, who was found to have had inappropriate contact with several students, said he wasn't aware of any policies addressing electronic communications with students.
Dickensheets mentored a number of students even after they no longer took his classes. He believes that the vagueness of his communications with them left too much open to interpretation, and photos with female students were misinterpreted and used against him.
More than a year after being investigated, Dickensheets remains bitter.
"We're taught in the district that we do everything to help these kids, and when you do, it's inappropriate," he told the newspaper.
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, http://www.dallasnews.com