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Hernando County schools consider rules on student-teacher text messaging

BROOKSVILLE — As district officials grilled Ryan Wilson about text message exchanges with a female student, the Nature Coach Technical High School teacher and coach said a previous athletic director told him he could use technology on the job.

"I was told to communicate with the cell phone," Wilson told officials last month.

Wilson was cleared of allegations that he had had an inappropriate relationship with the girl, but interim superintendent Sonya Jackson reprimanded him for, among other things, continuing what she called "inappropriate and extensive text messaging."

There are no explicit rules governing the use of text messaging in the Hernando County staff handbook or the state's rules or code of ethics and professional conduct. Educators are left to apply limited guidelines and, as one School Board member put it, some "common sense" to text communications.

"It's a gray area," said Joe Vitalo, president of the Hernando Classroom Teachers Association.

Now that just about every student has a cell phone, teachers who also serve as coaches or lead other extracurricular activities find texting to be a convenient way to quickly send word of a canceled practice or rescheduled rehearsal, Vitalo said.

Teachers and coaches are worried that, with the attention brought by the Wilson's case, they shouldn't be texting students at all.

"And yet it has been a godsend," Vitalo said.

School Board members and Jackson say the time has come to spell out when such texting is appropriate and what kind of content is off-limits.

Jackson said she could envision a policy that would allow texts only to communicate logistical information. Otherwise, teachers could find themselves in compromising positions — or at least the appearance of one, she said.

"I think with a policy in place, it would make staff think twice."

• • •

Plenty of teachers have texted their way into the kinds of headlines that make educators and parents cringe.

In 2008, a North Port high school teacher was accused of trying to seduce a girl via text messages. The girl reportedly told police she and the teacher had routinely exchanged messages until they turned sexual.

Last month, a former Pinellas County middle school teacher was sentenced to five years' probation for sending sexually explicit texts to an eighth-grade student last year.

And Eric Riggins, a former track coach and in-school suspension monitor at Hernando High, learned last month that he will likely lose his state teaching certificate in part for sending sexual texts to a female student.

Still, few if any Florida districts have explicit text policies. That includes Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties.

"We caution teachers about that kind of communication, but we also know it's useful for a teacher who is a band director or coach," said Linda Cobbe, a spokeswoman for Hillsborough schools. "It's a matter where they just have to be careful."

Springstead High principal Susan Duval said she conveys the same message to staffers at the start of every school year.

"Informational types of texting, I think, serve a very useful type of purpose," Duval said, "but when it gets into a personal realm, that's where professional educators need to be extremely careful."

Central High School athletic director Jeff Spivey said he supports limited use of texting for logistics but added that coaches should be texting the same messages to a parent's phone, too.

"It's certainly a good use of the technology," Spivey said.

Central principal Joe Clifford grants that, but he is still wary.

Tools like EdLine and e-mail are available to get messages to students and their families, Clifford said. Perhaps school administrators could be assigned a cell phone to be used by staffers when they have an urgent logistical missive, he said.

"But kids having access to a staffer's personal cell phones," he said, "is a recipe for disaster."

• • •

At least a few school districts in the country have gone zero tolerance.

In 2008, school officials in Lamar County, Miss., approved a policy forbidding teachers and students from having any text message conversations or social-networking friendships. At the bottom of an online story reporting this development on the CBS News Web site, a reader posted this:

Here are the texts that I sent my students this year:

Don't forget the Student Leaders Lunch with the principal today.

Yes, you may check out a camera today. Come by and see me.

The contest is at 6 PM at the Scott Theatre.

Yes, I will help you make a slide show for your brother's funeral.

Hernando School Board member Dianne Bonfield says she is ready to go the way of Lamar County, Miss. She said she hopes the issue of a written policy will make it to a workshop agenda later this year.

"I don't think it's proper to get in touch with students at all through cell phones," Bonfield said. "It's for everybody's protection."

That punishes teachers for the actions of a few teachers who likely would have violated a policy anyway, said Vitalo, the local teachers union president. And Wilson's case is a reminder that well-meaning teachers need to be careful and report unsolicited texts from their charges, he said.

"But it shouldn't prohibit us from communicating with players and students," Vitalo said.

Board member Sandra Nicholson said past cases show that not every teacher can be trusted with good judgment.

"If they don't have common sense, then it needs to be in writing," Nicholson said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 584-5537 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando County schools consider rules on student-teacher text messaging 02/28/10 [Last modified: Sunday, February 28, 2010 8:38pm]
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