PORTLAND, Ore. - The stories always grab headlines – educators getting caught in sex scandals with their students.
Recently, it felt like every few weeks a new disturbing story was breaking about a teacher violating the public trust and crossing the line with students.
But is the sexual abuse of students actually happening more often? KATU News On Your Side Investigator Anna Canzano decided to dig deeper into the issue.
"There's no question it's bigger in terms of the number of our reports," said Vicki Chamberlain, the executive director of Oregon's Teachers Standards and Practices Commission. That’s the state entity that regulates teachers, suspending or revoking their licenses when they break the rules, or break the law.
"We've had 22 reports since November," Chamberlain said.
The reports range from inappropriate exchanges with students to sexual abuse and rape. Among other factors for this increase, Chamberlain points to the effect of the digital age.
"Now (teachers) can hide behind e-mail, they can hide behind social media and texting and make contacts when they're not in the immediate presence of the (student). Twenty years ago, a lot of this happened face-to-face and a lot of those opportunities weren't that frequent," Chamberlain pointed out.
Dr. Troy Hutchings is one of the country's leading researchers on this subject. He's interviewed teachers who've gone to prison for having sex with students to learn about the slippery slope that led to their mistakes.
Hutchings believes the prevalence of teachers and students being friends on Facebook only adds to the problem.
He said he has found “way too many” teachers who text students and connect with them via Facebook.
He said lately courts have ruled that any interaction between teachers and students – whether they're on or off school grounds, or in cyberspace – are an extension of their job responsibilities. That makes it that much more important for us to draw brackets around the role of a teacher.
"Yes, teachers should model great behavior, have an influence on student lives, and have deep meaningful relationships with their students, but they shouldn't necessarily be texting students or be friending students on Facebook. There's no place for that," Hutchings said.
He acknowledges that is a controversial viewpoint, especially for "digital natives" – educators who are younger and who've grown with these types of technologies as a regular part of their lives.
The Data: More Teachers Sanctioned
We dug up numbers going back 16 years on all the teachers sanctioned by the State of Oregon for sexual misconduct. The data shows roughly nine or ten teachers disciplined annually until 2004. From 2004 forward, there were between 12 to 15 teachers sanctioned every year.
Conveniently, the same technology that gives teachers more access to students also makes the inappropriate interactions easier to track, document, and prosecute. There are phone records to reference, text message histories to study and Facebook walls to call upon in the investigations.
Profiling Problem Teachers
Dr. Hutchings' research shows more often than not, the teacher who winds up in a sex scandal isn't a pedophile, a loner, or someone on the fringes of a school's social structure. Often they're very effective, popular among students or even outstanding.
“They're successful, and sometimes that causes an invincibility mentality that exists with the teacher offender, they kind of believe that rock star status," Hutchings said.
But Hutchings said the most common recipe for disaster is an at-risk student gravitating toward a teacher who has a strong need for affirmation or deficiencies is in his or her own life.
He cites a fellow researcher who observed that offenders tend to be popular, powerful, assertive and aggressive as adults when they weren't as adolescents.
He believes these are by and large preventable crimes and that educators as a whole aren't doing enough in the training of teachers to help them make the right decisions throughout their careers.
Chamberlain lamented to Canzano, "I know there's people out there who we haven't caught, who I know are misbehaving. I don't believe for a minute that everyone who's been engaging in inappropriate conduct has been reported or found out."
Ways to Protect Kids
· Take notice of teachers who are singling out your child for extra attention.
· Beware of those who are spending disproportionate amounts of time with your kid.
· Don't allow your kids to be Facebook friends with their teachers.
· Keep an eye on who your kids are texting with
· Keep cell phones and computers out of their bedrooms at night.