From classroom to chatroom: how teachers risk crossing the line with students

Technology allows students and educators to communicate outside of school on online and social media platforms. Those communications are usually fine but can occasionally cross the line, experts say. (Photo Illustration by Tea Francesca Price and Lexi Hart/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Investigators said it started with a World of Warcraft game: A 16-year-old girl joined a team with her teacher and then entered into a private chat, which spiraled into online advances by the teacher and suggestions of meeting outside of school.

The teacher, Christopher Heavin, could lose his license to teach in Arizona. A state group of educators that oversees cases of alleged teacher misconduct unanimously recommended the Arizona Board of Education revoke his license when it meets next week.

The case and other recent situations illustrate a growing dilemma in schools. Teachers are communicating with students on social media and online platforms more than ever, building connections that can work well but can also go wrong, experts say.

Social media “makes it much easier to communicate through technology, and because of that it’s easier to blur the boundaries,” said Samantha Blevins, an attorney who represents the Arizona Education Association, a professional organization for teachers.

About 30 percent of teen social media users have teachers or coaches as friends in their network, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study.

Social media and online platforms can accelerate learning and can keep students connected and engaged, said Beth Simek, president-elect of the Arizona PTA. But vigilance is crucial, she and others said.

“I think social media is a great thing, but we need to be diligent in ensuring that children and teachers are using it appropriately,” Simek said. “I would never ‘friend’ a student on my personal Facebook page, ever.”

Heavin no longer works at the charter school where he taught and it’s unknown if he is still teaching in Arizona, said Alicia Williams, director of special projects for the state education board. State officials could not reach him and Cronkite News could not reach him for comment. His listed address is a P.O. box, not a home address.

A private chat on World of Warcraft

State investigators said Heavin used a private messaging system in World of Warcraft to try to pressure the girl into meeting outside of school.

“We have almost 200 pages worth of messages here, and it’s very disturbing,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Schwarz said last month to the Professional Practices Advisory Committee, which hears cases of alleged teacher misconduct. “He keeps begging her to come clean his house, wanting to pick her up places – in addition to the actual overt sexual advances made on this 16-year- old student.”

Heavin reminded the teen of his power over her grades, documents from the Board of Education investigation say.

“Think of me when dreaming of how i grade dem papers,” he wrote in a private chat with the student, according to the investigation documents.

Heavin taught for the 2014-15 school year at Pas Charter Inc.- Metro Campus in Phoenix, Heavin did not request a renewal for the following year and the school did not offer a new contract, according to Michael McElhinney, superintendent of the charter school.

The student graduated in 2015 and when she returned January 2016 as a volunteer, she mentioned to a school secretary she was “glad to see he was gone” because she had a younger sister who was coming to the school that year. The student told her how he had talked with her and other students, according to McElhinney. He reported it to the Phoenix police and the education board.

Phoenix police are still investigating the incident, no official charges have been filed, according to White.

“I think every member of this committee is saddened and frustrated that this kind of behavior would take place in the classroom,” said Chad Sampson, who chairs the teacher-conduct committee.

Conversations going ‘awry’

Educators said communication between teachers and students used to be limited. But the increase of texting, social media and online classes has expanded student and teacher interactions.

“The majority of teachers are good people, and most districts have pretty standard social media policies,” said Blevins, who trains teachers how to best use social media.

Teachers don’t intend to misuse social media but sometimes conversations “go a little awry” and cross a professional line, she said.

The teacher conduct committee also recommended revoking the license of another teacher in a 3-2 vote.

Susan Yonker, who taught at Willis Junior High School, was accused of exchanging “numerous inappropriate electronic messages” with a 13-year-old female student while teaching a technology-based English course at the school in the fall semester of 2015, according to education-board documents.

The conversations included profanity, sexual topics and derogatory comments about Yonker’s co-workers and other students at the school, the documents say.

The communication between the two stopped once the mother of the child found the conversations and notified the school, according to documents.

Sandy Cooper, assistant superintendent for human resources for the Chandler Unified School District, told the committee she met with Yonker, who said her 12-year history as an instructor should “outweigh this incident.” Yonker did not deny the messages, showed little to no remorse, and never admitted to any wrongdoing or showed any contrition, Cooper told the committee.

Yonker, in an interview, said once the mother reached out to her, she immediately notified the principal and removed the student from her class.

“I look back at some of the things I said and, yes, I am very sorry about the language I had used on that,” Yonker said. “I had even called the mother and I told the mother how sorry I was,” said Yonker, who had taught at the school for 12 years.

She said the school had created a blended learning program – a hybrid of in-person and online education – incorporating netbooks, Google Drive documents and Prezi, as well as social media sites like Instagram.

She said students often contacted her on more than school-related issues.

“I was always the one that they would stay after school to talk to or they would message me about problems they were having,” Yonker said.

Yonker said another student had reached out to her on Instagram after running away from home and an abusive family member. She said she reported the situation to child-safety authorities and found another home for the student.

Yonker said the school should have clarified the rules of talking to students on social media.

“We were told specifically that, ‘yes,’ we were allowed to talk to students via messaging, Instagram, things like that,” said Yonker, who now teaches at an Arizona preschool.

Advice to avoid mistakes

Educators emphasize social media and other online communications are useful ways to connect with students, as long as they are used appropriately. Online communications between teachers and students are expected to rise.

“By 2019, 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online,” Clayton Christensen, a teacher and consultant, writes in his book, “Disrupting Class.”

Parents, students and teachers can avoid problems by making sure they understand their school’s social media policy, including standards for communication between teachers and students.

Simek advises teachers who are approached by students to ‘friend’ or communicate beyond professional boundaries online to tell their supervisors and ask them to intervene.

“A lot of the teachers spend too much time trying to be friends with their students and they blur that line,” Simek said. “It’s your responsibility to communicate to your class what the boundaries are. They forget that they are there to ensure that the student is safe but also learning.”

Teens who are digital natives can become desensitized to dangers online but should report suspicious behavior to a parent or authorities.

In a parent guide to internet safety, the FBI recommends open communication between parents and their children about their online activity and social media interaction.

“The safest thing you can do is to be watchful of your children and aware of their activities online,” Simek said.

“Blissful ignorance is not going to help us in the long run with our kids,” she said. “Be aware of what your kids are doing on social media and also be aware of what your teachers are doing on social media. Get to know the teachers and what they value in their classrooms.”