During court proceedings for former Abbotsford teacher Martin Careen, the content of text messages between him and some of his students was revealed.
There were explicit messages with one female student that resulted in his conviction and sentencing for sexual exploitation. But there were also friendly chats that, although not criminal in nature, raised questions about the use of this technology.
It’s an issue that has been reviewed by the Abbotsford board of education’s policy committee, and remains on the radar.
Trustee Shirley Wilson, former head of the committee, said the board is looking at expanding its policy on the use of cellphones and multimedia devices to include such things as text messaging and Facebooking.
Wilson said while there are benefits to such efficient forms of communication, there are risks that haven’t been properly addressed because the technology has developed so quickly.
Among the considerations is whether texting (sending brief written messages between two mobile devices) is OK in certain situations – for example, when it’s related to class assignments – or whether it should be banned entirely.
Wilson said she leans more towards the latter.
“Personally, one of the reasons it (texting) is so concerning for me is because it is between two people … Short snippets could become personal and easily misconstrued … I do think there is the risk of it going beyond educational in nature.”
Lauren Arthur, a Grade 12 student at Abbotsford Collegiate, said she and her friends consider texting to be more social and not entirely appropriate for teacher-student contact, although it does have its place.
Arthur, who captained her school basketball team, said the only text messages she has ever received from a teacher were when her coach let her know about any changes in practices or games, or if he was running late. Arthur would then pass the message along to the rest of the team.
She said she prefers email for any homework questions she might have because they are “more professional” and can provide more detail than text messages.
Arthur disapproves of any student-teacher communication that moves beyond classroom-related topics.
“If you’re just texting (your teacher) to have a conversation .. I don’t think there is a need for it.”
Pat Lee, a counsellor and coach at W. J. Mouat Secondary, said he recently purchased a phone that enables him to send texts, and he appreciates the benefits. He uses it only in his role as a coach – to quickly remind players about practices and games or to notify them of any changes – and would not use it to have a conversation with a student.
He acknowledges that without guidelines in place, some teachers – particularly younger instructors who have grown up in the technological era – could cross into sketchy territory.
“There are boundaries around texting, but what those boundaries are haven’t really been made clear at this point.”
The issue has received some attention from the B.C. College of Teachers (BCCT), which holds workshops called “Understanding the Professional Relationship: Respecting the Boundaries.” The focus is on misconduct and social networking issues such as texting and Facebook.
“Our bottom line is that your students are not, and must not be, your friends, and that it is important not to blur the line between the personal and the professional. If you want to use social media in instruction, it should be exclusively for that use,” said Mykle Ludvigsen, senior communications officer with the BCCT.
The only written policy to be found on the issue was from the Catholic Independent Schools Vancouver Archdiocese (CISVA). Doug Lauson, CISVA superintendent, said the policy, called Personal and Professional Boundaries, was approved in October 2010 partly in response to the Martin Careen case.
The policy outlines “boundary violations” that must be avoided. These include “… having contact with students via written or electronic means … outside of a professional/educational context” and “texting or online communication with students on the adult’s personal email, or being ‘friends’ on a social networking site.”
Appropriate communication includes using school email to discuss class assignments, the policy states.
Wilson said there are many areas to consider and it could be some time before the Abbotsford school district has an expanded policy in place.
“All of it is with the view of maximizing the opportunity for (technology) while minimizing the risk,” she said.
Over the line
Two recent cases in Abbotsford highlight how teachers can cross the line when using technology to communicate with students:
- Martin Careen, a 52-year-old religion and history teacher at St. John Brebeuf Regional Secondary School, was sentenced to a 60-day jail term this week after being convicted last July of invitation to sexual touching (sexual exploitation) for explicit text messages sent in 2009 to a 17-year-old female student. Evidence presented in court indicated the texts at first were related to school work but became sexual as the conversation progressed.
- Student teacher Corey Hamade, 30, was sentenced in January to 21 days in jail after pleading guilty last November to invitation to sexual touching in relation to a 15-year-old girl. He was at Rick Hansen Secondary from February to April 2010, doing a practicum toward an education degree. He made sexual suggestions to the student over Facebook and through instant messaging.