Ethical Educator

A Surprise in Storage
School Administrator, February 2017

Scenario: A teacher lends his personal jump drive to students in his Advanced Placement World History course so they can use material stored on the drive for a major group project. The students open a written document that contains sexually graphic themes. Several students are exposed to the material. Their parents learn of the discovery and complain to the principal. What actions are warranted?

Shelley Berman:
The teacher may argue that the jump drive was personal equipment and not school property, that the students were supposed to access only particular files, and that the material was not pornographic but simply contained sexual themes. However, none of these arguments meet the standards teachers must maintain in their work.

First, the teacher should not have provided his personal jump drive with personal documents to students for use in a class project. He could have relayed files to students in numerous ways without incurring the possibility of sharing inappropriate or personal material.

Second, because he used the drive instructionally, the documents on the drive are now reviewable by the administration for their appropriateness. Given that the class is an AP World History course, it is unlikely that the document mistakenly accessed by students is germane to the subject or part of the curriculum.

Finally, it is highly inappropriate for teachers to provide sexually graphic material to students, unless it is in an approved part of the curriculum such as a health class on human sexuality. The material may be legal, in the sense that it does not contain pornographic images. However, it was inappropriate for students to read and the teacher may have created a sexually charged environment that crossed the boundary of appropriate relationships with students. It also undermined, potentially permanently, students’ and parents’ confidence in and respect for the teacher.

The administration needs to pursue a thorough investigation, including searching the teacher’s school computer to determine if there are other similar documents stored on school property. The findings of the investigation are likely to result in discipline that could rise to dismissal. The degree of discipline depends on the history of the teacher’s performance, particularly in the area of using inappropriate materials in class; the nature and explicitness of the material accessed by the students; and the extent to which the teacher assumes responsibility for his error. If the circumstances indicate that the teacher can effectively continue in his position, the teacher should strive to regain the respect of his students by first acknowledging the error and then apologizing to the students and their parents.

Sarah Jerome:
This case requires more information before a thoughtful course of action can be determined.  Knowing board policies, school rules and the law, plus providing for due process and union representation if applicable are important aspects of the investigation process.

The principal must meet with the teacher to determine the teacher's intentions.  The principal needs to know if the teacher intended the students discover these sexually graphic themes.  Were the teacher's actions innocent though negligent or deliberate and malicious?  Another question the principal must investigate is whether this is a first-time event or a repeated act of questionable appropriateness with students.  Some school districts have prohibitions for staff sharing personal equipment/property with students. Was such a provision in place in this case? One important aspect of this case is the legal ramifications.  Were laws broken regarding student safety, sexually graphic materials shared with minors, or gross negligence?

Depending on the outcome of the investigation, the principal could consider a wide range of consequences for the teacher.  Presuming the teacher was innocent of intentional wrongdoing, the teacher might want to meet with the students and parents and apologize for the error.  He might mention his plan to attend technology classes where he can learn to segregate data that he wants no one to access.  The principal may decide that his actions were egregious and recommend the teacher be suspended for the remainder of the semester.  Or the principal may want the teacher to resign based on the findings of the investigation.  The teacher may be referred to the police if the sexually graphic materials were significantly inappropriate, if a repeated pattern were determined, and/or if the actions violated the   "in loco parentis" bond of teacher as protector of the student.

The school board has an obligation to provide guidelines to teachers that will help protect teachers as well as students.  If these policies do not exist, this case can serve as an important catalyst to get such policies in place.

Maggie Lopez:
The principal having informed his supervisor and having reviewed district policy related to the incident needs to meet with the teacher and talk to him about the complaint that has been lodged. The teacher may choose to talk to the principal or may request representation before talking to the principal.

If the district’s legal counsel concurs, the principal should request the jump drive from the teacher. Technically, it remains the teacher’s property.

The teacher needs to be placed on paid administrative leave and an investigation needs to be conducted. The principal needs to talk to the teacher, students and anyone else involved or having information related to the matter. The jump drive needs to be reviewed by the principal and the instructional technology director to determine the nature of the content, which has been called into question. Human Resources, IT and legal counsel can provide support in this process. Finally, the principal needs to review the documentation from parent calls. After talking to all involved, reviewing all data and applicable policies, the principal may need to have an additional conversation with the teacher or others involved for clarification.

Upon review of the information collected, the critical questions to be considered are:  Was the content on the jump drive simply inappropriate or was it of a pornographic or illegal nature? If illegal, law enforcement would need to be involved. Did the teacher break policies? If policies were broken, which policies, were they serious enough to constitute reprimand or termination? Ultimately the principal will need to determine based on his data, what action to recommend. Depending on the outcome of the investigation, actions could include follow-up discussion with the teacher, the teacher being reprimanded, or the teacher being recommended to the board of education for termination.

Followup with students, parents and/or staff will need to be determined, while also taking into account that this is a personnel matter.

Mario Ventura:
In most states, it is a serious crime to provide or expose sexually graphic materials to minors. In addition, most state laws have mandatory reporting to law enforcement and the state education department when a school employee is aware that someone exposed a minor to sexually graphic material.

If the principal is getting complaints from parents about their children being exposed to sexually graphic themes, it is highly probable some boundary of appropriateness was crossed. The incident could have been accidental or intentional with a motive that is not clearly understood at this time. The principal should inform the superintendent’s office, law enforcement and the state department of education. The principal can conduct an investigation to determine if district policy was violated once law enforcement has given authorization.

Sexually graphic content is a very sensitive issue for families and communities. There are varying opinions about its place in schools. Teachers should take this under consideration when preparing to teach a unit or theme with sexually graphic content. Parents should be notified and be given an opportunity to review the material as well as be provided with an explanation of why the content is within the scope of the subject matter curriculum.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Sarah Jerome, a retired superintendent in Arlington Heights, Ill., and an AASA past president; Maggie Lopez, a retired superintendent in Pueblo, Colo.; and Mario Ventura, superintendent, Isaac School District, Phoenix, Ariz.