TWIN FALLS — Ask almost any teacher or school administrator and they’ll tell you they get Facebook friend requests from students.
But Magic Valley school districts and the state discourage — and often prohibit — that kind of communication.
Educators want to be friendly, personable and create positive connections with students, said Brady Dickinson, superintendent of the Twin Falls School District. Conversations on social media can start out innocently, he said, but can lead to problems. “You just have to be more careful than that. Most teachers are just going to avoid it all together.”
But within the past three weeks, two Magic Valley school employees have been arrested and accused of rape or sexual battery of a current or former student. In both cases, the educators started communicating with their victim outside of the classroom via social media.
Jason Lee Benjamin, 39, of Twin Falls, who was most recently a math teacher at Robert Stuart Middle School, was arrested Dec. 28. He’s accused of rape. Prosecutors say Benjamin admitted to having sex with a 17-year-old student he taught at Canyon Ridge High School. He and the victim reconnected this fall, when the former student added Benjamin on Facebook, according to a police affidavit.
Less than two weeks after Benjamin’s arrest, 26-year-old Gooding High School employee Ann Kuroki was arrested Jan. 5 on eight felony counts of sexual battery of a minor child. After initially denying allegations, Kuroki admitted to police she’d had sex with a 16 or 17-year-old student six times at her house and bought him alcohol twice, according to a police affidavit. Kuroki, who monitored the Idaho Digital Learning Academy lab and coached junior varsity boys basketball, initially communicated with the student via Instagram.
Generally, in cases of misconduct, the educator involved knows they’re doing something they’re not supposed to, Dickinson said, and a lack of training isn’t at play.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with policy or how much education we do,” he said. “I think we do a good job of educating people. Unfortunately, people make bad decisions.”
All Idaho teacher preparation programs are required to share the Code of Ethics for Idaho Professional Educators with their students.
Plus, when someone applies for an Idaho teaching certificate or a renewal, they’re required to attest they’ve read the code of ethics.
The code of ethics includes 10 principles — one of which is educator/student relationship. “A professional educator maintains a professional relationship with all students, both inside and outside the physical and virtual classroom,” according to the principle.
Unethical conduct includes “committing or soliciting any sexual act from any minor or any student regardless of age.” It also prohibits soliciting, encouraging or participating in a “romantic or inappropriate relationship” with a student.
It doesn’t include specifics about social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.
“They’re trying to cover all ranges of communication types,” said Lisa Colon Durham, director of certification and professional standards for the Idaho State Department of Education. “The overall idea in this particular principle is regardless of how you communicate with students, professional boundaries need to be established.”
Idaho’s Professional Standards Commission investigates ethics complaints among certified educators. That would include Benjamin’s case in Twin Falls, but not Kuroki in Gooding because she was a classified employee.
School districts and public charter schools file a written complaint to the Professional Standards Commission. The state is required to permanently revoke the certificate of anyone who’s convicted of a felony crime against a child.
Durham said she can’t confirm or deny whether the Professional Standards Commission has received a complaint about a specific teacher or whether there’s an open investigation.
But the commission lists the disciplinary actions issued on its website — a change it made starting in June 2016.
If the school employee isn’t certified, “there’s nothing the commission or state department can do,” Durham said. “They would need to handle it at a local level.”
So what kind of teacher-student communication is acceptable, according to Magic Valley school districts? Here’s what school officials have to say about social media, text messaging and in-person communication.
Twin Falls School District spokeswoman Eva Craner said she hears questions at employee training sessions about connecting with past students on social media sites.
“My advice is maybe after they’ve graduated,” she said. “While they’re still in our education systems, that can really muddy the waters of what’s professional.”
Professionalism in the workplace and social media use are also covered at new teacher orientation.
The Twin Falls district’s policy about employee use of social media states “excessive informal and/or social involvement with students” is prohibited.
“Although it is desired that staff members have a sincere interest in students as individuals, partiality and the appearance of impropriety must be avoided,” the policy states.
Occasionally, school district administrators talk with employees about their online communications. They’re generally not being inappropriate, but it’s because of the number of posts, Dickinson said.
“We see that they’re on social media sites students are on,” he said. “It’s more of a protection thing for them.”
In Cassia County, Superintendent Gaylen Smyer said educators talk about the state’s code of ethics and “expectations for professional behavior.”
“Admittedly, people make poor choices,” he said. “Sometimes, social media can be at the root of that.”
Boundaries can start to become blurred and educators can get too comfortable, he said, adding it can be one small step at a time and rationalizing poor decisions.
To communicate with students, “we actually discourage our staff from using text messaging in general,” Dickinson said.
The exception is when coaches send out a group text message to students when a sports practice is canceled or the schedule changes.
“It’s OK as long as it’s a group,” Dickinson said. “One-on-one communication with a student isn’t appropriate. That’s really where you can get yourself into trouble.”
In Cassia County, it’s not uncommon for a teacher or coach to send out a text message to students, Smyer said.
“We don’t prohibit such things,” he said. “We encourage people to maintain a professionalism there because if someone reads that out of context, are they going to understand the big picture and jump to a conclusion?”
Smyer said school officials try to encourage employees who are texting students in a group message to include a few parents.
Another area where educators are asked to exercise caution is communicating with students in person, such as when a student comes in after school with questions about an assignment.
Educators are often asked to leave their classroom door open and to avoid meeting with them alone.
That guideline is also to protect the teacher, Dickinson said. “The vast majority of all teachers want to do a good job and would never think about doing anything inappropriate with a student.”
The bottom line is that most teachers are overcautious about being alone with students, Dickinson said, and they avoid situations that could lead to being called into question.