Terry Abbott is chairman of Drive West Communications and a former chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education.

(Peter Kirkeskov Rasmussen/Flickr)

A 14-year-old student in Florida wrote his cellphone number on a classroom chalkboard because he wanted a classmate he liked to call him. The student indeed was contacted – not by the girl but allegedly by his 32-year-old teacher. Within days, police said, the two were involved in a sexual relationship.

In Pennsylvania, a 33-year-old teacher approached a 17-year-old student at a school dance and began flirting with him, police said. The married teacher then sent the student sexual text messages and photos, along with a video of herself performing lewd acts, according to news reports. The relationship escalated, and the teacher pleaded guilty last month to institutional sexual assault.

Unfortunately, these kinds of stories are becoming more common across the country. In 2014 alone, there were 781 reported cases of teachers and other school employees accused or convicted of sexual relationships with students. My firm, Drive West Communications, has been tracking news reports of sexual misconduct by educators for more than a year. Every week has brought news of 15 young people, on average, who were sexually victimized by the educators entrusted with protecting them. That’s an abhorrent rate and a trend that deserves far more attention from school leaders and policy makers.

In Texas, home to the largest number of teacher sexual misconduct cases in the country, investigations into alleged inappropriate teacher-student relationships has grown 27 percent over the past three years, to 179. Kentucky schools reported more than 45 sexual relationships between teachers and students in 2011, up from 25 just a year earlier. And a surge has been reported in Alabama, where the state investigated 31 cases during the year ending July 2013, nearly triple the number it had investigated just four years earlier.

That data confirmed the disturbing shift I have witnessed while working in education. In the late 1990s, I was press secretary for the Houston Independent School District, one of the largest districts in the country. In 2001, I served as chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education. In those roles, I would hear about teachers who became sexually involved with students – but at that time, those cases seemed rare.

Since then, two things have become popular and had a massive effect on the prevalence of sexual misconduct in schools: social media and text messaging. Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat didn’t exist 15 years ago, and the number of teenagers with their own cell phones has ballooned. Nearly 80 percent of youth ages 12 to 17 own a cellphone, and 94 percent now have a Facebook account. Classroom sexual predators have been exploiting these new, unsupervised modes of communication to develop improper relationships with students out of sight of parents and principals.

These instantaneous, omnipresent and discreet connections have created an open gateway for inappropriate behavior. Last year, at least 281 school employees — 36 percent of those accused or convicted of an inappropriate relationship with a student – were reported to have used social media to start or continue those relationships. I suspect the percentage actually is significantly higher, since news accounts don’t always reveal when social media was a factor in these interactions.

There’s no shortage of examples:

  • Authorities said a 54-year-old Oregon teacher exchanged more than 1,800 text messages with a 16-year-old student, many of them sexually explicit, before the teacher was convicted and sentenced to prison in August.
  • A 31-year-old Florida teacher was charged after police said she allegedly used Facebook to solicit sex from at least four students.

While male school employees were the perpetrators in two-thirds of all reported sexual misconduct cases with students in 2014, women were more likely to use social media to lure students. In our tracking, 40 percent of the women in these cases used social media as a tool for their crimes, compared to 35 percent of men.

To curb these troubling incidents, schools must have targeted policies governing electronic communication. Some states and school districts already have taken strong action in this area. In New Jersey, a new law requires school districts to adopt policies on social media contact between teachers and students. The New Jersey School Boards Association’s model policy bans teachers from friending students on social media without written approval of their principal. It also says electronic contact with students should be done only through district computers and telephones. More states and school districts need to take similar action.

While social media can be an important tool for learning, reasonable restrictions must be put in place to protect children. If a teacher or coach wants to send an electronic communication to a student, it should be copied to a parent. Private messages with children should never be allowed.

When my team speaks to educators around the country, they generally are stunned by the size and scope of this problem, and rightfully so. Policymakers and school leaders need to get tougher on these cases. School districts should review existing employee guidelines and make sure they tightly control social media interaction between school employees and students.

America is blessed with many great educators who work hard to teach children every day. Those children include my 15-year-old son, who attends a great public school in Texas. I know those wonderful educators join with me and parents all over the country in saying, “Enough is enough!” This crisis needs to end now.

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