Education

Should high school teachers text their students?

How should teachers set boundaries on social media and texting with students?

Thomas Dodson, an expert who advises teachers and parents on digital communications, says school districts need to train educators and set clear guidelines on handling social media and texting.
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Thomas Dodson, an expert who advises teachers and parents on digital communications, says school districts need to train educators and set clear guidelines on handling social media and texting.

Samantha Archuleta has a rule: No texting with students after 7 p.m.

If the McClatchy High School teacher gets questions late at night, she’ll respond the next school day.

“I’m not going to let them contact me anytime of the day or night,” Archuleta said. “That’s pushing a boundary.”

As students rely heavily on text messaging to communicate, high school teachers are landing in tricky digital terrain.

How much, if at all, should teachers text students outside of class? Do they text one student or all?

Some teachers think texting from a personal phone can undermine professional boundaries. In a handful of extreme cases, texting has been central to inappropriate relationships between educators and students.

Thomas Dodson said school districts are grappling with best approaches to govern digital communications between teachers and students. Dodson advises teachers, parents and students how to be responsible with digital communications through his Sacramento nonprofit Above the Fray.

“It is the Wild West right now, and everyone is scrambling to figure it out,” Dodson said. “Some have strict guidelines. Most districts haven’t caught up yet.”

Dodson said he regularly sees bad news tied to technology and communication between students and teachers.

“I think we’re at that point now where the schools and districts are saying, ‘Wait a second. This is a big enough problem now. We’ve had enough students hurt. We’ve paid out enough money for settlements. We’ve got to do something now,’ ” Dodson said.

Only two decades ago, teacher interactions with students outside the classroom were typically limited to the chance meeting in a grocery store or restaurant, he said.

At Whitney High School in Rocklin, student media adviser Sarah Nichols said she advises parents and students at the start of the school year what communication methods will be essential and why. Most digital communications occur through the group messaging app GroupMe, which works with both emails and texts.

Some students ask to text Nichols directly when they’re out on stories and hope to post quickly to the school’s news site, www.whitneyupdate.com. They may need on-the-spot feedback, and Nichols said in such instances a teacher should respond quickly.

“It’s important for anyone in a teaching capacity to be mindful of the perception of something,” Nichols said. “While I have close personal relations with my students, I’m not going to text a meme or something that is silly or confidential or inappropriate. I make sure my work-related conversations are all professional.”

In Sacramento County, school districts generally do not prohibit teachers from texting. But some districts, such as Folsom Cordova Unified, encourage educators to rely on their official messaging system to communicate with students and families.

Archuleta, the McClatchy teacher, said she uses a free app called Remind for school messaging, which allows her to reach an entire class at once or send a note to an individual. That allows her to communicate without sharing her personal phone number or asking students for theirs.

District officials in the region also said they expect teachers to adhere to long-standing professional standards of conduct regardless of the medium. The Natomas Unified School District, for instance, requires staff to “exercise good judgment and maintain professional boundaries when interacting with students, including not soliciting, encouraging or establishing an inappropriate relationship – whether written, verbal or physical,” spokesman Jim Sanders said.

Dodson said districts need to be proactive, talk to teachers and principals about problem scenarios and not wait for trouble to surface. He started Above the Fray “to get kids talking about their online digital media” and to counter cyberbullying, he said.

“If a teacher has a reason to contact a student outside of a district-monitored Gmail or message board, just cc the parent,” Dodson said. “Why not? Why wouldn’t you do that?”

Social media adds to what Dodson calls a perception of familiarity. “It goes deeper and deeper to blur the lines between the teacher and the student,” he said. “If you’re friends with them on Facebook, or you’re following them, you see their pets, their house, where they go on vacation.”

“Oftentimes it starts innocuously enough, but it can rise to an inappropriate level pretty quickly.”

Several students and parents said they don’t object to texting.

“The biggest part for me is that it’s a huge part of the way that kids communicate today,” said Sanjay Lee, whose 18-year-old son graduated Wednesday from the charter school, Visions in Education. “I think if that (texting) helps the student fulfill requirements, I am all for it.

“I like to think that the large majority of the teachers act professionally, as leaders and authority figures to the students.”

Summer Gray, 18, graduated this week from Casa Roble High School. “I think it’s OK as long as they keep it professional, as long as they don’t go off-topic,” she said.

Locally, a handful of text-related cases have resulted in arrests and discipline for educators.

Former Inderkum High School teacher Byron Charles Wallace faces a criminal trial in coming weeks on nine felony counts tied to sex with a minor. A separate civil suit alleges he sent the girl sexually laden texts and pictures in her senior year and then developed a sexual relationship. He was arrested in 2015.

A former coach at St. Francis accused in June 2016 of having sex with two underage girls is awaiting trial on seven felony counts. Defendant Michael Martis, now 57, began sending text messages in 2013 to one of the students when she was a sophomore at St. Francis.

And in January, the parents of a Del Oro High School student in Loomis became alarmed after they said the band teacher insisted on allowing their teenage daughter to go on a weekend camping trip.

The mother said in an interview she looked through her daughter’s phone messages and was sickened when she found text after text from the teacher. She asked to be identified only as “Heidi” to save her daughter further embarrassment.

The teacher sent thousands of messages over a nearly two-year period starting when her daughter was 14, according to a claim the family’s lawyer filed against the Placer Union High School District, band teacher Benjamin Duncan and two administrators. Among them was a text in which the teacher said he wanted to give the student a “huge hug that immobilizes your body. I love you so much,” according to the claim.

“I think she feels shocked that we found out. She thought nobody would ever find out,” Heidi said. She said the disclosure changed her daughter’s life and hurt her friendships.

Duncan declined in a brief telephone call to comment.

The Placer County Sheriff’s Office, alerted by the girl’s parents, said its investigation showed “inappropriate” actions that, nonetheless, “did not rise to the level of criminal conduct.”

Placer Union High School District officials said in a statement that it takes student safety “seriously in this and all matters.” The statement said the matter was promptly investigated, and the district took “appropriate disciplinary action,” noting that the teacher is back at work.

The student’s family is seeking damages for “serious and irreparable harm” caused by Duncan’s actions.

McClatchy High’s Archuleta is in her third year of teaching. She said she has talked to other teachers and thought a lot about professional boundaries.

The messages are always school-related, she said. No cellphone numbers are exchanged since the Remind app sends her an alert when an inquiry arrives.

“I make sure the students understand it’s a professional venue for communication,” she said. “It’s not something so we can talk on the weekend. I try to set a tone.”

She is the adult, she said, and wants to be viewed that way. “I don’t let them see me as a friend. I tell them, ‘We’re friendly. We’re not friends.’ ” It follows, she said, that students are not on her Facebook page.

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