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July 30, 2014

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After teacher arrests, district considers how much social media interaction to allow

Alfphonso Washington

Alfphonso Washington

Michael Barclay

Michael Barclay

The path to inappropriate conduct often begins with an electronic message — perhaps a text, tweet or Facebook note.

The communicators are students and teachers or school staff members, two populations whose lives are inherently linked by classes, sports or extracurricular clubs.

Communication outside of school can be necessary, but authorities say it’s also a slippery slope: What may seem like harmless communication can balloon into something more, resulting in inappropriate conversations and, in some cases, sexual misconduct on behalf of the teacher, staff member or school volunteer.

“As technology increases, people have to adapt and society norms change,” said Metro Police Sgt. Raymond Spencer, who works in the department’s sexual assault section. “Some people don’t realize what’s appropriate versus what’s not appropriate.”

The latter scenario led to the arrest of two Lied Middle School teachers — Michael Barclay, 44, on Wednesday, and Alphonso Washington, 47, on Aug. 27.

Although separate cases, the similarities are striking: Barclay was the boys’ basketball coach. Washington coached the girls’ basketball team.

And both cases involved electronic communication between the suspects and victims, police said.

The Clark County School District, which has 40,000-some employees, averages about three arrests of teachers or staff members each year related to sexual misconduct, said CCSD Police Sgt. Mitch Maciszak.

“The only common factor is some type of electronic communication has been used,” he said.

Policy considerations

The trend has prompted administrators to begin discussing the adoption of a policy regulating what kind of communication is allowed between students and staff outside of school.

The district has been evaluating how school systems in New York City and Los Angeles handle the issue. A committee hopes to submit a policy recommendation to the School Board by the end of the calendar year, said Kirsten Searer, CCSD’s chief of staff.

Finding that middle ground is the key. School officials acknowledge that the majority of electronic communication between students and staff is legitimate, such as a coach sending a text about a practice cancellation.

And cutting off all electronic communication seems unlikely given society’s reliance on such technology.

More than three-fourths of teens own a cellphone nowadays, and of those, 47 percent have a smartphone, according to a Pew Research Center study published in March.

Searer said the committee is leaning toward recommending a policy that would require parents to approve of electronic communication between their child and staff members.

“We really want to be sensitive to this issue,” Searer said. “It’s really complicated. There’s no perfect answer.”

A national group working to prevent instances of teacher and staff member sexual misconduct would like to see an even stronger stance.

“We don’t believe that any educator should be communicating with a student outside of the school-approved network,” said Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, or SESAME.

That means no exchange of personal email addresses, cellphone numbers or social media interaction between students and staff members, Miller said.

CCSD uses a Facebook-like program called Edmodo, which is a school-monitored network, Searer said. The company website for Edmodo bills it as a “free and safe way for students and teachers to connect and collaborate.”

“It’s a way for them to post content and communicate quickly with students,” Searer said.

Training and awareness

Last year, Metro, CCSD police and School District officials collaborated to create a video that warns school staff members about the legal ramifications of crossing boundaries with students, said Metro Lt. Dan McGrath, of the department’s sexual assault section.

School police also have begun more training sessions to reinforce employees’ need to report suspicions of child abuse, which includes sexual misconduct on behalf of staff, Maciszak said.

“Even though not everyone in the School District is a mandatory reporter, we are going to train everyone within the School District to look for those signs,” he said.

School police investigate every rumor or report of student-staff sexual misconduct, Maciszak said.

“It’s a problem every time they have a sexual misconduct by a teacher,” McGrath said of the district. “To their credit, they take immediate action.”

A new law should help school officials and police clamp down on the problem.

The Nevada Legislature passed a bill this year that prohibits sexual relationships between school employees or volunteers and any student younger than 18, which closes a loophole in state law.

The age of consent in Nevada is 16. The previous law did not ban sexual relationships between school employees or volunteers and students who attended other schools.

Even so, police admit they haven’t developed a profile of a typical offender. Police have arrested male and female staff members who were targeting students of both the same and opposite sex.

“Sometimes they feel there is a connection,” Maciszak said. “We have to use our investigative techniques for them to explain to us what happened and how it happened. We’ve heard a gamut of explanations and excuses.”

For police, that’s the upside of electronic communication playing a role in many of these cases: There’s usually a trail to follow.

School police uncovered 1,000 text messages exchanged between a male student and Amanda Brennan, a Foothill High School English teacher arrested in May on counts of luring a child and contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Authorities urge parents to keep tabs on their children’s social media and cellphone activity, which could indicate an inappropriate relationship.

“Be involved and talk to your kids,” Spencer said. “The cases that do come to light come from parents who are involved.”

Barclay, who taught history at Lied Middle School, remains in custody at the Clark County Detention Center without bail. He has been charged with attempted statutory sexual seduction by a person over 21 and attempted lewdness with a child under age 14, which are both felonies.

His colleague, Washington, a special education teacher, has been charged with two counts of open and gross lewdness, a gross misdemeanor. He’s under house arrest, according to court records.

The School District is in the process of terminating the employment of Barclay and Washington, school spokeswoman Melinda Malone said.

Lied Middle School’s principal, Kimberly Bass-Davis, has been placed on home assignment pending an investigation, Malone said. The nature of that investigation is unclear.

The district has appointed Felice Kadlub as interim principal, according to a letter sent by the school to parents on Thursday.

"She is working to ensure that our students continue to receive an excellent education during this time," Joe Murphy, a district academic manager, wrote in the letter. "In the immediate future, our staff will work hard to minimize any disruption in our learning environment."

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