Is Tech Making it Easier for the Letorneau's and Sanduskys Out There?

Carrie Schmelkin : Gossip from the Hallways
Carrie Schmelkin
Web Editor, TMC

Is Tech Making it Easier for the Letorneau's and Sanduskys Out There?

kid crying.jpgMore than 10 years ago, the world stood aghast to learn that then 35-year-old Mary Kay Letorneau, a school teacher, was having sex with her 13-year-old student, Vili Fualaau. How could a teacher have taken advantage of such a vulnerable child? How did no one detect it sooner? And how could Letorneau, who was imprisoned from 1997 to 2004 and went on to give birth to two of Fualaau’s children, and Fualaau claim it was true love when they later got married?

This case was a pivotal moment as administrators and families had to ask the chilling question of at what point does a helpful teacher become a child predator? Letorneau’s actions showed that perhaps our children aren’t as safe as we thought they were and perhaps there are more predators out there taking advantage of our children than we think.

Fast forward more than a decade later and the United States public is still in a state of horror, this time to find out that Jerry Sandusky, a revered defensive coordinator for the Penn State University football team, is embroiled in a sexual abuse case – one in which he allegedly sexually abused at least 10 young boys through his charity work.

In both Letorneau’s and Sandusky’s cases, there is no clear indication that technology was a leading factor in the relationship entering dangerous territory, but these instances beg the question of how much more likely is it for students to become assaulted by teachers because of the advent and ubiquity of technology?

Unfortunately, the stats don’t lie.

This past year in Illinois, a 56-year-old former language-arts teacher was found guilty on sexual abuse and assault charges involving a 17-year-old female student with whom he had exchanged more than 700 text messages, according to a recent “New York Times” article. Out West in Sacramento, Calif., a 37-year-old high school band director pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct stemming from his relationship with a 16-year-old female student; law enforcement later determined that the girl had received more than 1,200 private messages from him through her Facebook page, some about massages. Over here on the East Coast in Pennsylvania, a 39-year-old male high school athletic director pleaded guilty in November to charges of attempted corruption of a minor after it was determined that he offered a former male student gifts in exchange for sex.

“It can start out innocent and get more and more in depth quickly,” said Lewis Holloway, the superintendent of schools in Statesboro, Ga., who unveiled a policy this fall prohibiting private electronic communications after learning that Facebook and text messages had helped forge a relationship between an English teacher and her 14-year-old male pupil. “Our students are vulnerable through new means, and we’ve got to find new ways to protect them.”

With social media sites like Facebook and Twitter well in the public domain, experts have been contending that is easier than ever before for teachers to target their students in illicit manners. And the proof is in the pudding as Richard J. Condon, special commissioner of investigation for New York City schools, said there had been a steady increase in the number of complaints of inappropriate communications involving Facebook alone in recent years — 85 complaints from October 2010 through September 2011, compared with only eight from September 2008 through October 2009.

When we hear stories about Letorneau and Sandusky, and the fact that in many cases other adults help cover up such behavior, it often evokes a visceral reaction – chills, nausea and disgust. We are quick to throw these monsters to the stake and scapegoat any adult who knew something and could have stopped it.

When we learn about people like Letorneau, Sandusky, and other predators, it makes us question the educational system and demand from superintendents and school boards answers as to how this could have gone undetected.

But there is a more important component to this– equipping our kids with the tools to defend themselves in trying situations and the resolve to report on strange behavior.

Whether it’s a babysitter, teacher, relative or employer, the world is not immune from predators and just as important as it is to find and punish the abusers, it is perhaps more imperative to teach our kids about how to detect uncomfortable behavior. And distinguishing between “good touch” “bad touch,” is not enough.

It’s about teaching kids how to make sure they are safely navigating the social media world. It’s about teaching kids how to handle tough situations. And, most importantly, it’s about teaching kids that it is OK – and necessary – to speak up about anything that rubs them the wrong the way.



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