One of the ongoing challenges in investigating cases of educator misconduct is that so many of them involve text messages, which are a particularly ephemeral form digital evidence. Unlike files on a hard drive, which typically linger long after they are “deleted,” or emails, which are routinely archived in multiple locations (just ask Ollie North!), text messages are far too easily deleted or destroyed.
For a variety of reasons, cellular companies have no interest in archiving the actual contents of text messages (although they do maintain a record of sender, receiver, date, and time for each message). A copy of a particular message can be found on the actual devices used to send and receive that message, but if both parties to the conversation delete a text message, then it can be fairly difficult to recover it. As some people have discovered to their dismay, it’s not entirely impossible, but the success rate is generally much lower than is the case with files stored on a hard drive.
Lack of Evidence Hurts Case
This reminder to educators and school administrators is sparked by a case arising out of Anna, Ohio, a small town located about 45 miles north of Dayton. Two weeks ago, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office received two anonymous reports that a teacher at Anna High School was sending inappropriate photographs to an underage student.
A follow-up call to the Sheriff’s Office identified both the student and the teacher, a 25-year-old married substitute named Mary Breth. During the subsequent investigation, law enforcement officials learned that Breth and the student had been texting back and forth with each other since 2013, when the student was 14 years old. Over time, the texts grew increasingly sexual in nature, culminating in a photo Breth sent to the student that showed her wearing just panties with her arm across her breasts.
Jim Frye, the Chief Deputy in the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, told reporters that a lack of evidence limited the ability of the prosecutor to pursue more serious charges:
All we had to go on was the child, the parents of the child and the confession of the teacher. If we didn’t have her confession we would probably not had a case at all. At that point it would have been all hearsay and without evidence to prove the allegation we would not have had enough to charge her with.
He also said that the prosecutor concluded that the photo was “very inappropriate” but did not rise to the level of a sexual crime.
Breth has been suspended by the school district and will be charged with “contributing to the unruliness or delinquency of a minor.”
Social Media Posts Become Fair Game
There are two lessons that educators should take from this case (and so many others like it). The first, obviously, is to maintain appropriate boundaries with students and to practice mindfulness about the risk of slippery social media slopes. A good starting place is to avoid any unmediated electronic communication with a student but in the event that it seems necessary, discuss the communications with a trusted colleague, supervisor, or school counselor. It’s a lot easier to hold those conversations than post-indictment chats with defense counsel.
Second, as an additiona check on misconduct, it is important to remember that if a problem does arise, your entire life will become fair game. Any images that you’ve put onto social media that depict you or your spouse may wind up being broadcast around the world. In Breth’s case, for instance, England’s Daily Mail chose a selfie that Breth posted to Instagram, as well as a couple of photos that she posted of her and her husband enjoying life together. It is unlikely that she will be posting similar pictures will be posted anytime soon, if at all.