By Courtney Cutright, The Roanoke Times, Va. (MCT)
Janette Espelage's school-issued cellphone started ringing before her feet hit the floor Monday morning, with a text message from a student asking about the schedule for semester exams.
By the time she arrived to work at Roanoke's Forest Park Academy, she had sent and received more than two dozen texts. Espelage, a student support specialist, said she easily exchanges at least a hundred text messages a day with teenagers from the city's alternative program for overage students.
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"It is just a great technology to get information to students and parents," she said.
Unfortunately, it is a form of communication that sometimes is abused. A proposed state model policy that could prompt local school boards to limit or ban electronic communication is creating concern among some Roanoke school employees.
Roanoke schools Superintendent Rita Bishop said that, when she read the state's proposal, she immediately thought of the useful way Espelage uses text messaging.
"Basically, we have got to do something about social networking to protect people," Bishop said. "It has wonderful applications that can really help students and all of us, and it has awful aspects, too."
Charles Pyle, a spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education, said "private conversations, secret conversations that take place electronically between teachers and students" are a common factor in the sexual misconduct cases presented to the state board of education.
Since 2000, about seven of every 10 actions taken in Virginia against educators' licenses involved sexual misconduct with minors, according to the background information for the proposed model policy posted on the VDOE website.
"We are talking about a tiny percentage of Virginia teachers, coaches and school board employees," Pyle said. "Nevertheless, there are far too many cases, and the cases continue to come despite erecting barriers to offenders entering the system."
The General Assembly in 2008 passed legislation tightening the requirements for reporting instances of sexual misconduct by school employees and directing local school boards to adopt policies to prevent sexual misconduct. But by and large, the latter has not happened, according to Pyle. That is what prompted the state board to draft the model policy, which could lead local school boards to set limits on or even ban electronic communication between employees and students.
"I would be hurt and shocked if I couldn't text students," Espelage said.
The proposed model policy forbids school employees from using personal communication devices to text students and prohibits school employees "from interacting one-on-one with students through personal online social networking sites." The policy does not address use of personal e-mail accounts.
Espelage said she knows plenty of teachers who text students from personal phones. She initially used her own cellphone to text students, but, after routinely going over the allotted messages in her phone plan, she asked school officials to issue her a phone. It's an option most Roanoke school employees won't have.
Administrators were not too happy when they received the first bill for Espelage's phone. She thought the monthly plan included unlimited text messaging, but it really offered only 400 message credits, which she spent in a matter of days. Her plan since has been upgraded to unlimited messaging.
Espelage typically starts her workday at the student sign-in table in the Forest Park Academy lobby. As the start of classes nears, she sends text messages to students who haven't shown up for school: "Where r u 2day?"
She said most students, who might ignore a phone call, respond to a text message.
"That is the way I stay in touch with Ms. Espelage and my cheerleading coach," said Raven Phillips, 18, who dropped out of school in Montgomery County two years ago.
After marrying and moving to Roanoke, Phillips enrolled at Forest Park Academy, and she expects to graduate with a high school diploma in August.
"If I am running late, she will text me, asking where I am at," Phillips said. "It feels awesome to know they care enough to see where I am."
Phillips said she probably would not go to school most days if not for Espelage checking on her.
The pep squad sponsor at Forest Park Academy, Elizabeth Garst, sends text messages from her personal cellphone to squad members with information about what to wear and what time to meet at sporting events. Texting is much more convenient and timely than phoning the students one by one, she said.
Garst, who also teaches English and journalism, said Thursday that there have not been occasions for her to text students who are in her classes.
"But I probably wouldn't think twice about it," she said.
The texts pour in throughout the day, and, many times, students send texts to Espelage at night and on the weekends, too.
"Students do open up more through texting," she said. "They text me all kinds of things: 'I am going into labor,' 'We are getting evicted,' 'There was a domestic violence situation at home, and the police were called.' "
Espelage connects students with the appropriate community services in those instances. For her, text messaging is a vital tool she uses to do her job.
But one Roanoke School Board member cautions that the situations faced by students at Forest Park Academy may not reflect the reality of students across the city school division.
"Right now, I am on the fence with the issue," Mae Huff said. "I think texting can be a very good thing if used for instructional purposes."
Huff, who has worked on a draft of the social networking policy for the division, also is aware of the potential risks. She said that, sometimes, an uninhibited teenager may share too much information via text messaging, possibly texting things he or she may not disclose in a face-to-face conversation with a school employee.
Both teachers and students have to be "very careful" with the technology, Huff said. Bishop said she is not aware of any Roanoke teachers who have sent sexual text messages to students.
Roanoke's draft social networking policy has been placed on hold to see what action the state board takes with the proposed sexual misconduct model policy.
"What we seek to do is strike a balance, a balance that recognizes the appropriate uses of technology and social networking but at the same time provides guidance on boundary lines to prevent misconduct," Pyle said.
The 14-page proposal also addresses face-to-face communication and physical contact between school employees and students. A revised draft of the policy will be presented to the state board in March for final review.
Vol. 30, Issue 20