Newsday: Jeff Herman discusses the role of social media in student-teacher sex abuse cases

Newsday: Jeff Herman discusses the role of social media in student-teacher sex abuse cases

An article published yesterday in Newsday examined the role of technology in teacher-student sexual abuse cases. Newsday reached out to Jeff Herman, one of the nation’s top sexual abuse attorneys, for his thoughts on how technology is making it easier for adults to prey on children.

Read the full Newsday article below:

Teacher-student sexual ties feed on texting, social media, Hudson Valley experts say



Middle school teacher Mary Kay Letourneaustunned the nation in 1996 when she was arrested for engaging in sex romps with 13-year-old student Vili Fualaau. The pretty 34-year-old mother of four spent 7 years in Washington state prison. She had two daughters with her young lover, divorced her husband, and after she was released in 2004, married Fualaau.

Since then, the couple occasionally host “Hot for Teacher” nights at a Seattle night club, and the public is no longer shocked by the near-daily reports of teachers, or other school personnel, having sexual contact with students.

A few recent cases in Westchester and the Hudson Valley include:

  • Marisa Anton, the 33-year-old New Rochelle High School librarian, who showed up at a 16-year-old student’s house last year with condoms after pursuing him with sexy text messages for months.
  • Dean Martin, 45, a computer teacher at Saunders Trades and Technical High School in Yonkers who, from 2005 to 2010, boosted the grades of students he targeted for sexual abuse.
  • Lisa Franklin, the 44-year-old substitute teacher at Sacred Heart School in Newburgh, who was arrested in March, accused of having sex with a 12-year-old student.


Technology — specifically the rise of cellphone use and social media — has sparked an increase in inappropriate relationships among teachers and students, said Richard Condon, the special commissioner of investigations for New York City’s public school system.

“A teacher used to have to go through the parents to get to the students after they left school,” he said. “If you had a teacher calling your kid three or four times, you’d start to question it, but with cellphones, teachers have unfettered access to the students.”

In some cases, Condon said, teachers carrying on inappropriate relationships with students have bought cellphones for the students to surreptitiously carry on the relationship.

“We’ve found cases where there were more than 1,000 text messages between a teacher and student,” he said. “I don’t have to prove a sexual relationship to have the teacher fired, just an inappropriate relationship, and there’s no reason for, say, a history teacher to be sending dozens of texts to a student on a Saturday night.”

Generally, when presented with that kind of evidence, the teachers resign rather than proceed to an administrative hearing, Condon said.

Some districts have instituted policies to reflect the growing use of social media by school personnel and students. Among other things, they are forbidden from accessing students’ personal pages on social media sites using school district equipment.

In New Rochelle, school officials can monitor all city-owned “individual computers and/or areas of the network at any time to ensure that the system is being used properly.

“For this reason, employees should expect that e-mails, materials placed on personal web pages, and other work that is created on the network may be viewed by a third party,” the policy states.

The Yonkers City School District adopted a “non-fraternization” policy between teachers and students in December 2012 that includes social media and texting. The policy forbids teachers or staff from “initiating, continuing, or otherwise engaging in inappropriate personal communications in any form or manner with students unrelated to course work, official school matters or concerns a student’s welfare or safety.”

School personnel who violate the policy can face disciplinary action ranging from termination to criminal prosecution, depending on the severity of the violation.

Some schools, however, have been slow to establish social media policies that reflect the rapidly evolving world of online social interaction that occurs outside of school, said Lisa Friel, who prosecuted sex crimes for 25 years in the Manhattan district attorney’s office. She now consults with schools throughout the metropolitan region — including Westchester — on establishing and maintaining the proper boundaries between teachers and students.

“The rules need to be clear: Teachers cannot be friends with students on Facebook, cannot follow them on Twitter, cannot share Instagram pictures with them,” she said.

Such ground rules are good for students and teachers, especially as younger teachers who are immersed in the world of social media enter the profession, said Pat Puleo, president of the Yonkers Federation of Teachers.

Technology has “broken down the lines of authority and familiarity to a point where it can be misinterpreted with a student,” she said. “We want to be mentors, but we want to keep our distance … we also want to reach out to a generation that lives and breathes on the Internet.”


The inappropriate or illegal relationships between teachers and students usually occur in high school, said Friel. Teachers who engage in sexual relationships with students often have two “self-delusional” methods to excuse their behavior, she said.

“One, they’ll say the student was different from the others because he or she was unusually mature for his or her age, so it wasn’t like having a relationship with a 15- or 16-year old,” Friel explained. “The second excuse is the romanticization of the relationship, that it’s a Romeo and Juliet situation that the rest of the world just wouldn’t understand.”

The students, she said, very often don’t even realize they were victimized until years later.

“They’re carrying around this baggage that’s very unhealthy and having problems and not realizing it stems from these ultimately abusive relationships,” she said.

Instances of adults preying on children have become so prevalent in the last 20 years that Miami-based attorney Jeff Herman has built his law practice around representing young victims.

“The Internet has fueled the explosion of these cases,” said Herman, who has sued entities including the Archdiocese of New York on behalf of child sexual abuse victims. “Teachers have access to students literally in the child’s bedroom if there’s a computer in there.”

In addition to social media and video-chatting breaking down barriers, the Internet also has created a digital trail, so investigators can more easily build cases against adults who act inappropriately, he said.

Schools, however, must maintain a delicate balance in teacher-student relationships, said Kelly Chiarella, president of the Westchester East Putnam Region PTA and a mother of two school-age children.

As schools increasingly are expected to be aware of bullying and to teach social skills, teachers are encouraged to become the adult that students can turn to for help.

“A lot of (schools) started updating guidelines for teachers and their professionalism with students, so there’s never a gray area and no one is ever wondering why you’re talking to students,” Chiarella said.


Researcher Nan Stein, said it’s hard to say whether teacher-student relationships are more prevalent today. The Wellesley College senior research scientist said only a handful of academics in the nation have tried to study the issue and data is hard to come by.

“There isn’t any information officially collected by the state education department or the federal government” on teacher-student relationships, Stein said.

A 2011 survey by the American Association of University Women showed that few students said they had been sexually harassed by a teacher or other school employees, according to Catherine Hill, AAUW’s Director of Research. Misconduct by educators was only a small piece of the problem of sexual harassment in schools, she noted.

Friel doesn’t believe there are more cases of adult sexual misconduct in schools, but she said more incidents are being reported. She encouraged school leaders and educators to trust their instincts and report suspicious behavior.

Part of the problem, Friel said, is that many of these cases involve popular teachers whose reputations as educators are stellar. “So there’s a certain disbelief that this teacher could engage in anything so wrong.”

That, she said, causes other staffers who might suspect something to avoid speaking up.

“It’s pretty simple,” Friel said. “If you, as a staffer, suspect something is amiss in a colleague’s interaction with a student, trust your instincts and say something.

“You hear a lot of ‘that could never happen here'” she continued, “when the truth is it can happen at any school.”


On a recent afternoon, a few Hastings-on-Hudson students admitted that their relationships with teachers are more casual than in the past. Teachers often give them their cellphone numbers and text with students, they said.

“I feel like the scandals have always happened, but social media is making it more prevalent,” said Hannah Cummings, a 15-year-old Hastings High School student.

Jean Wong, whose son is a junior at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, believes that the scandals involve only a minority of teachers. However, she said teachers should be authority figures and they lose the respect of students when they try to be peers.

“I certainly do think there’s a separation of church and state between being friends and being a teacher,” she added.

Mark Hilliard has earned the nickname “investi-dad” from his daughter, a junior at Ossining High School. He has installed a locator on her phone and he monitors her communications. Parents, he said, need to be involved in what their kids are doing online and with smartphones.

“It does not worry me personally,” Hilliard said of inappropriate student-school personnel relationships. “So long as the parent stays involved and monitors their child, it will be OK.”

Teacher Puleo, however, warned: “It’s a good thing to keep a good professional distance from our students. Looking at it from a parents’ point of view, one must always be wary of the adults in our children’s lives. I never tell parents not to worry — that’s the parents’ job.”

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