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Student-Teacher Sex In Las Vegas: What's Going On?

teachers_accused.jpg
Mug shots courtesy: Las Vegas Metro Police
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Teachers and substitute teachers accused of inappropriate relationships with students. Bottom left - Jason Lofthouse; Bottom center - Robyn Gentile; Bottom right - Jillian Lafave. Top Right - Frank Bayer; Top Left - Kristy Yegge

It really does feel like we can’t go long without hearing about another teacher getting caught having sexual relations with a student.

Going back to August, five Clark County School District teachers have been arrested for alleged illegal contact with students.

In the scheme of things, in a school district with some 300,000 students and 18,000 teachers, that might not seem like a lot. But that it happens at all is prompting a lot of soul-searching by the school district, teachers, parents and students.

Many people agree that social media is partly to blame for the rise of these types of cases. 

Ian Whitaker is the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun and recently wrote an article about how connections over social media contributed to the issue.

Social media allows students to connect with teachers and ask about assignments or concepts from class; however, Whitaker said it can become something else quickly.

“For some students and some teachers that quickly devolves into a deeper relationship that is not strictly academic,” he said.

He said the idea that a sexual predator is hired as a teacher is usually not true. He said these relationships often develop after a teacher has passed a background check. 

“I think of it is spurred by social media and just the constant contact that students can have with teachers,” Whitaker said.

Emily Richmond with the National Education Writer Association agreed and she pointed out these teachers are a tiny fraction of the district where most teachers are working hard everyday to educate children.

“The biggest problem here is predicting a teacher who is going to be a problem,” Richmond said, "A lot of these problems arise after someone has gone through a background check.” 

Mike Barton is the chief student achievement officer for the Clark County School District. He told KNPR's State of Nevada that the district is looking at policy rules to help ensure safer communication between teachers and students. 

However, Barton said there is a lot of communication between teachers and students that is informal and the district doesn't want to unleash "unintended consequences."

For instance, Barton said coaches or faculty advisers to student groups often need to text or chat with their students about practice, assignments or events. Limiting that kind of contact would hurt the student-teacher relationship, he said. 

“The mentor process that occurs between teacher and student can be very powerful and help with what we’re trying to increase, which is student achievement,” Barton explained.

With that said, Barton said teachers need to be cautious about the boundaries and keep parents in the loop about the communication.

“If there is a need to interact with students, it needs to be like how a teacher speaks to a student in the classroom," he said, "It needs to be 100 percent professional.”

Besides teachers understanding the boundaries in the teacher-student relationship, Barton said the district needs to monitor any out-of-bounds interactions.

“If teachers go down that path where it becomes blurred as far as the boundaries, then we need to take that seriously as a district,” he said.

Katherine Herlein is an associate professor of marriage and family therapy. She said social media and other forms of communication, like texting, bring a level of intimacy and self disclosure that few people understand.

“They don’t realize they’re disclosing more and then next thing you know you find yourself in relationship that has a higher level of commitment, a pretty high level of intimacy, within a very short amount of time,” Herlein said.

She said Facebook for example allows people to share information and create a feeling of familiarity that can lead to a break down of boundaries, especially in a dynamic like the teacher-student one. 

However, Herlein said the motivation for teachers to step over those lines isn't as simple as oversharing on Facebook. She explained it can be a complex mix of what is going on in their life at the moment, their own socialization skills and lack of understand of how much they've disclosed. 

As for students, getting the attention of a teacher can be "flattering."

“Students respect the power of the instructor," Herlein said, "It is probably very flattering to feel that an instructor might reciprocate some feelings that they may have for them.” 

While teacher-student communication is part of the picture, Richmond pointed out that some of the fail safes in place to prevent the problem are another part.

Richmond said the database that is supposed to prevent teachers, who are known to be a problem, from getting hired at another school district is not up to date.

“States are just not sharing this information in a meaningful way," she said, "So, it’s possible for people to cross state lines get licensed somewhere else. So that makes it very difficult to track how serious this problem really is.” 

Emily Richmond, National Education Writer Association;  Katherine Hertlein, associate professor of marriage and family therapy, UNLV;  Ian Whitaker, education reporter, Las Vegas Sun ;  Mike Barton, chief student achievement officer, Clark County School District 

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Joe Schoenmann joined Nevada Public Radio in 2014. He works with a talented team of producers at State of Nevada who explore the casino industry, sports, politics, public health and everything in between.