Following Sex Scandals, Districts Impose Message Ban

Two Mississippi school districts have banned text messaging and online social network communication between faculty and their young pupils following a string of teacher-student sex scandals.

The new policies, believed to be among the first in the nation, come as authorities have uncovered a growing number of teacher-student sexual misconduct incidents found to have been facilitated through text-messaging and Internet communication. Representatives of both school districts told ABC News that the policies are not the result of any particular incident.

"This was just an attempt by us to put into policy that there doesn't need to be any informal socialization between teachers and students," said Lamar County school board attorney Rick Norton.

Norton, who initiated the Internet communication policy for Lamar County schools, said it prohibits "fraternization via the Internet between employees...and students."

"The main thing is that we actually encourage interaction via the Internet for educational purposes," he said. "What we're trying to prevent is communication of an inappropriate nature."

In Mississippi and other states, inappropriate online communication between teachers and students has proved to be a factor in revelations of sexual misconduct.

A Greene County, Miss., teacher was sentenced to 10 years in prison in May for sending sexually explicit text messages to a Greene County High School student.

In January, a Biloxi teacher was charged and later admitted to sexual battery of a teenage student after police revealed text message records that indicated the pair had had sex on multiple occasions. In one message the teacher called the student her "little sex fiend," according to authorities.

The recent Mississippi cases are among many sexual misconduct incidents in America. An Associated Press investigation found 2,570 educators whose teaching credentials were revoked, denied, surrendered, or sanctioned from 2001 through 2005 following allegations of sexual misconduct.

Randy Hodges, superintendent of the Lauderdale County, Miss., school district that instituted the "no text message" policy between teachers and students, maintained that his district's new policy was not in response to any particular incident, but acknowledged that the rules were designed to prevent sexual misconduct.

"We had a lawyer who gave ... the example that three employees in the state who had inappropriate messages on their text ended up in prison, to make a long story short," Hodges said. "The messages had some sort of inappropriate language and sexual content, and this was designed to prevent just that -- it's about us trying to be proactive and not having to deal with it after the fact."

While text messaging has grown to become a favored form of communication for teenagers, the rise of Internet social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook presents an even newer source of administrative and parental concern.

Material posted by both students and teachers on social networking sites has led school boards to take disciplinary action.

"The policy is always playing catch-up to the technology, and that's what's happening with these schools," said National School Board Association (NSBA) senior staff attorney Tom Hutton. "They're relatively new policies because the use of these kinds of platforms for educational purposes is relatively new; you want to encourage the use of technology, but how do you make sure you're protecting children against some of the potential downsides?"

Ben Burnett, superintendent of the Lamar school district that banned teacher-student communication on social networking sites, said he didn't expect the national media attention that has followed the district's new policy, but added it was common sense to regulate Internet communication.

"We didn't know we would be blazing a trail with this, but I would assume that with so many people of all ages using the Internet and these kinds of sites, it would be such an easy way for children to get drawn into an inappropriate relationship with an employee," he said. "But our policy doesn't prevent students and teachers from creating and using these type of sites -- that's their First Amendment rights. This is just to restrict communication that might only occur on informal, social Web sites."

Burnett said the district has to be careful when restricting communication between students and teachers.

"The downside is that part of being a good teacher is having a good relationship with a kid. You have to get to know a child to form a relationship, and then education can happen. In fact, no learning will happen until then," he said. "But we have so many different avenues for educational communication, and have really incorporated technology in so many ways in trying to change the culture of how we educate students, that we felt we could do this for the safety of the kids."

Lauderdale superintendent Hodges too admitted that communication via means such as text messaging could be beneficial for teachers and students, but said that possibility did not outweigh the risks.

"Anything you do you try to use a common sense approach, but we felt you couldn't really leave a gray area. There were just too many problems that could occur."