By Victor Skinner
OMAHA, Neb. – Omaha middle school teacher Shad Knutson found a new way to connect with his students, and he used it to live out his sexual fantasies.
In one year’s time, Knutson, now 36 years old, exchanged 26,986 text messages and phone calls – an average of 70 per day – with one of his 14-year-old female students, according to the Omaha World Herald. He exchanged almost as many messages with other 13- to 15-year-old girls at Nathan Hale Middle School where he worked.
He promised good grades if the girls flashed him or discipline if they didn’t. He exposed himself to at least one of the girls on school property, and attempted to lure them into sexual encounters. The young girls complained to school officials, who reacted by transferring one student, but failed to take the accusations seriously.
Eventually Knutson coaxed one of the girls into engaging in sexual contact. After school officials attempted to downplay one of the victim’s complaints about Knutson touching her breasts, the girl’s mother called Child Protective Services and police launched an investigation, according to media reports.
Knutson was found guilty this month of child abuse and sexual assault using a communication device, the World Herald reported.
“This case is about the abuse of power and authority of a teacher,” Douglas County Prosecutor Brenda Beadle said at Knutson’s trial in February, the World-Herald reports. “It’s about the failure of the system to stop it and the strength and courage of four young girls to come forward.”
The case also serves as a sobering example of how some educators are leveraging new technology to blur the traditional boundaries between student and teacher, sometimes with tragic results.
Educators now communicate with students through text messages, Facebook, email and other electronic means, giving them access to students’ personal lives like never before.
The access has been a mixed blessing. It helps honest teachers reach students on their level and offer timely feedback on school work, but an increasing number of teachers like Knutson are abusing the private access to groom students to satisfy their sexual desires.
The good news is that the electronic trail left by abusive teachers often leads to their downfall.
Crossing the line
Nearly every day, EAGnews and other media outlets report about teachers throughout the nation electronically soliciting students for nude photographs, graphic chats, and sexual favors.
It seems like the majority of reported abuse cases develop through inappropriate electronic communications, especially at the high school level. But the actual number of cases involving electronic means is still largely unknown.
“One of the things that has been frustrating is that when I talk to the various (teacher) licensing agencies in the states, many don’t record how the offenses are committed,” said Frederick Lane, a computer forensic expert and former chairman of the Burlington, Vermont school board.
“Only one or two states have a check box for computer-aided or computer involved” teacher misconduct, Lane told EAGnews. “They really don’t track it.”
Some larger school districts, however, are starting to track the dark side of teacher-student electronic communications more closely.
New York City school officials, for example, reported that the number of complaints involving inappropriate relationships between teachers and students on Facebook skyrocketed from eight between September 2008 and October 2009 to 85 between October 2010 and September 2011, according to the New York Times.
There has been a similar increase in complaints involving text messages and other electronic communications in New York City schools.
City officials, as well as state lawmakers and local school officials across the country, have enacted policies in recent years that restrict how teachers can contact students in cyberspace, but allegations of abuse continue to surface every day.
New York City mother Maureen Eng is suing her son’s high school English teacher after she learned the woman allegedly gave her son marijuana and had sex with him between eight and 12 times. The alleged relationship came to light when the student’s girlfriend discovered intimate Facebook messages. Authorities later discovered 3,856 text messages exchanged between the teacher and her student at James Madison High School.
Paterson, New Jersey high school teacher Thomas Weir, 50, was arrested in February for allegedly attempting to solicit sex for $50 from one of his male students on Facebook. The student contacted police who set up a sting at a local fast-food restaurant where he was taken into custody.
Substitute teacher Dustin Mullins, 22, was charged with soliciting a minor over the Internet for allegedly sending lewd Facebook messages to a former student at Ravenswood High School in West Virginia. “You should send me a pic … cause I’ve wanted to see you without clothes on for a looooooong time,” Mullins allegedly wrote to the 15-year-old.
Urszula Jankowska, 33, was charged with a criminal sex crime after she inadvertently exposed her alleged three-year relationship with a teenage student by accusing the student of sending threatening messages on Facebook. The student told school officials in Brooklyn the relationship began when she was 13 and involved forcible touching.
Former Pennsylvania teacher Michael Zack was convicted of unlawful contact with a minor in 2011 for sending 4,300 text messages, many of a sexual nature, to four teenage girls at Shamokin Area High School.
“I don’t think there is much question whether the severity of the problem is much greater than two to three years ago,” Lane said. “It doesn’t take many people for it to feel like an epidemic. People … are worried about this.”
Different types of abusers
Lane told EAGnews he believes electronic communications play a role in the sexual abuse of students in different ways, but it’s likely a much bigger problem for students in upper grade levels.
“It’s a combination of factors. The older kids are more sexually mature so they will be targeted. It’s all the usual criteria for sex abuse, (students) having trouble at home looking for a role model,” Lane said. “The issue is opportunity versus predilection.”
Electronic communications “give people of a predatory nature better access to kids, but the real issue we’re starting to see is some teachers who might not necessarily be predators are getting sucked in,” he said.
“We have a generation of teachers coming into the workforce who have grown up with Facebook and Twitter … and all these other social media sites,” Lane said. “The problem with Facebook and texting and other social media is it creates the impression (teachers and students) are friends when they’re really not.
“All too often teachers and students are not stopping to think about the fact that if they are texting past a certain time of night they are actually in the child’s bedroom, and that didn’t happen before.”
Virginia Commonwealth University professor Charol Shakeshaft, who compiled the most comprehensive look at educator sexual misconduct against students for Congress in 2004, said teachers who get sexually involved with their students tend to fall into two categories.
“Fixated abusers” are true sexual predators who gravitate to elementary teaching positions because their “sexual satisfaction comes from children,” Shakeshaft told EAGnews.
“Opportunistic abusers” are “people who see an opportunity and think ‘why not?’” They are also more likely to teach in high school or upper middle school, she said.
The latter represents “the majority of the abuse” by educators in schools, Shakeshaft said.
“These people tend to have a lot of boundary problems and are sort of emotionally still in high school,” she said.
They’re also the type Lane believes are much more likely to get caught up in inappropriate electronic communications with their students.
It remains to be seen whether the problem will spread to middle schools and elementary schools as more parents allow younger children to have cell phones and become active on Facebook and other social media sites.
“The problem you are beginning to see is the percent of students in middle school with cell phones is rising to 70 or 80 percent,” Lane said.
The one upside is that teachers who cultivate personal relationships with students through electronic media leave a convenient trail for law enforcement officials.
In Naples, Florida, 37-year-old teacher Clint Rickelmann was recently charged with three counts of felony computer solicitation of a student after allegedly sending “graphic, lengthy and often explicit Facebook messages” to one of his former middle school students, according to MarcoNews.com.
The student told her father about one of the text messages in early March, then local sheriff’s deputies took over her Facebook profile and started answering Rickelmann’s messages. The teacher quickly found himself in a boatload of trouble.
“Parents need to be vigilant and need to know what’s on their child’s phone. It’s not a privacy issue, I think it’s a safety issue,” Lane said.
“The reality is, it’s extremely difficult if not impossible to erase your tracks online,” he said.
Tomorrow: School administrators and teacher union officials conspire to hide cases of sexual abuse