Education experts said accusations of teachers having inappropriate relationships with students are becoming more common in Texas. In fact, the Texas Education Agency said they have 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 cases in 2007 - 2008.
The increase, experts said, has been linked to modern technology. Teachers can have easy contact with students through Facebook and cell phones, and investigators have computerized footprints of evidence. The offense does not mean sexual contact or a crime. But experts warn that teachers who have inappropriate relationships can cause psychological harm to the students, even when there's no sex.
In fact, Texas Education Agency staff requested the change to the ethics code in 2010 because they said they started receiving disciplinary case referrals in which teachers were found to have sent students thousands of text messages. Sometimes the content of the messages was not inappropriate on their face, but the volume of messages and time of day the messages were sent indicated that the educator was "grooming" the student for a future sexual relationship.
The new provision in the Code of Ethics says:
(I) Standard 3.9. The educator shall refrain from inappropriate communication with a student or minor, including, but not limited to, electronic communication such as cell phone, text messaging, email, instant messaging, blogging, or other social network communication. Factors that may be considered in assessing whether the communication is inappropriate include, but are not limited to:
(i) the nature, purpose, timing, and amount of the communication;
(ii) the subject matter of the communication;
(iii) whether the communication was made openly or the educator attempted to conceal the communication;
(iv) whether the communication could be reasonably interpreted as soliciting sexual contact or a romantic relationship;
(v) whether the communication was sexually explicit; and
(vi) whether the communication involved discussion(s) of the physical or sexual attractiveness or the sexual history, activities, preferences, or fantasies of either the educator or the student.
That has school districts like Amarillo Independent School District enforcing.
"We expect teachers and really all staff members to be very careful about their relationship with students and that's really regardless of the venue or the vehicle for the relationship," said Holly Shelton, AISD Spokeswoman.
While social media interaction isn't prohibited, caution is advised.
"We do ask that you do the smart thing which is include parents and maybe the school's principal in on that communication whether it's online, email, texting, whatever," said Shelton ."We always encourage students, staff, parents, community members just to communicate with us. If there is a concern about some sort of relationship it needs to be brought oup to the attention of the administration".
Whether modern technology is or isn't the cause, officials say it leaves a footprint of their actions to use against them in court.