One case began as a technology-based English course, when the teacher leading it started sending a 13-year-old student Instagram messages and texts containing profanity, sexual comments and complaints about other students and colleagues.
Another began with a World of Warcraft game as a 16-year-old girl joined a team with her teacher and then entered into a private chat, which spiraled into online advances by the teacher and suggestions of meeting outside of school.
Both teachers have had their licenses revoked by the Arizona Board of Education. Susan Yonker taught at Willis Junior High School in Chandler and was sending the inappropriate comments. Christopher Heavin taught at Pas Charter Inc. - Metro Campus in Phoenix and tried to meet the student privately.
The cases and other recent situations illustrate a growing dilemma in schools. Teachers are communicating with students on social media and online platforms more than ever, building connections that can work well but can also go wrong, experts say.
Social media “makes it much easier to communicate through technology, and because of that it’s easier to blur the boundaries,” said Samantha Blevins, an attorney who represents the Arizona Education Association, a professional organization for teachers.
About 30 percent of teen social media users have teachers or coaches as friends in their network, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center study.
Social media and online platforms can accelerate learning and can keep students connected and engaged, said Beth Simek, president-elect of the Arizona PTA. But vigilance is crucial, she and others said.
“I think social media is a great thing, but we need to be diligent in ensuring that children and teachers are using it appropriately,” Simek said. “I would never ‘friend’ a student on my personal Facebook page, ever.”
Yonker was accused of exchanging “numerous inappropriate electronic messages” with a female student while teaching at Willis in the fall semester of 2015, according to education board documents.
The conversations included profanity, sexual topics and derogatory comments about Yonker’s co-workers and other students at the school, the documents say.
The communication between the two stopped once the mother of the child found the conversations and notified the school, according to documents.
Yonker sent a letter of apology to the board, which was read to them, saying she hadn’t previously used inappropriate language with students.
“I’ve never done it in person, so I don’t know why I had done it through messaging,” Yonker wrote, saying she had been going through a difficult time in her life. “I was always one of the best teachers on our campus.”
State investigators said Heavin used a private messaging system in World of Warcraft to try to pressure the girl into meeting outside of school.
“We have almost 200 pages worth of messages here, and it’s very disturbing,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Schwarz said last month to the Professional Practices Advisory Committee, which hears cases of alleged teacher misconduct. “He keeps begging her to come clean his house, wanting to pick her up places – in addition to the actual overt sexual advances made on this 16-year- old student.”
Heavin reminded the teen of his power over her grades, documents from the Board of Education investigation say.
“Think of me when dreaming of how i grade dem papers,” he wrote in a private chat with the student, according to the investigation documents.
Educators said communication between teachers and students used to be limited. But the increase of texting, social media and online classes has expanded student and teacher interactions.
“The majority of teachers are good people, and most districts have pretty standard social media policies,” said Blevins, who trains teachers how to best use social media.
Teachers don’t intend to misuse social media but sometimes conversations “go a little awry” and cross a professional line, she said.
Educators emphasize social media and other online communications are useful ways to connect with students, as long as they are used appropriately. Online communications between teachers and students are expected to rise.
“By 2019, 50 percent of all high school courses will be delivered online,” Clayton Christensen, a teacher and consultant, writes in his book, “Disrupting Class.”
Parents, students and teachers can avoid problems by making sure they understand their school’s social media policy, including standards for communication between teachers and students.
Simek advises teachers who are approached by students to “friend” or communicate beyond professional boundaries online to tell their supervisors and ask them to intervene.
“A lot of the teachers spend too much time trying to be friends with their students, and they blur that line,” Simek said. “It’s your responsibility to communicate to your class what the boundaries are. They forget that they are there to ensure that the student is safe but also learning.”