RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The moment the school bell rings, students step into their classroom for one reason: to get an education. On the front lines are teachers.

“99 percent-plus of our teachers behave in a very ethical manner,” explained State Superintendent June Atkinson.

Teachers are entrusted with children, but sometimes that trust is taken advantage of.

“It is of epidemic proportions,” said Terri Miller, president of S.E.S.A.M.E. or Stop Educator Sexual Misconduct. “It’s one of the worst forms of child abuse that has gone unrecognized for decades.”

A study conducted by the United States Department of Education found that “sexual misconduct by educators occurs in the school, in classrooms, in hallways, in offices, on buses, in cars, in the educator’s home, and in outdoor secluded areas.”

The report also cites an analysis done by the American Association of University Women which concluded that nearly 10 percent of all students are targets of educator sexual misconduct some time during their school career.

“One in 10 children is being affected by educator sexual misconduct between kindergarten and twelfth grade. That amounts to approximately five million children in the United States today,” Miller said.

S.E.S.A.M.E. provides materials for teachers on how to look for signs of sexual misconduct. You can read more here.

Here in North Carolina Schools

In North Carolina, teacher-student sexual relationships are against the law regardless of age.

WNCN Investigates started compiling and digging through court records and found that in the past five years, teachers have been charged more than 700 times for sexual misconduct with students.

“This is child sexual abuse and child rape and we have to recognize it as that,” Miller said. “It’s wretched. It wreaks havoc on their lives, their relationships, their emotional well-being.”

Miller said most cases often go unreported.

In 2002, Timothy Weaver, a band teacher at East Forsyth High School, was charged with sexual misconduct with a student.

WNCN Investigates spoke to the father of the victim, who didn’t want to go on camera. He said the teacher had inappropriate relations with his 16-year-old daughter and reported it to county law enforcement. The student and her family sued the school district saying it was negligent and ignored complaints.

“If you are in a situation where you believe that an inappropriate relationship is taking place between a teacher and student, please report the issue to the proper law enforcement and school officials and share your concerns and information with them. If you feel that children are still at risk and no action is taking place, please contact the attorney for the state Department of Instruction and they will terminate the educator’s certification if enough evidence is shown so that the teacher does not resign and move to another school and teach, as happened in my case,” the father explained. “Mr. Harry Wilson, the former attorney for N.C. DPI, terminated the teacher’s credentials. Usually school administrators take this action, but parents and concerned citizens can present information as well.”

The number of teachers losing their teaching license sheds new light on the problem. According to records from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, that number has doubled over the past 10 years to more than 800 teachers. More than 50 percent were because of inappropriate relationships with students.

WNCN Investigates took the issue to State Superintendent June Atkinson.

“School districts are becoming more and more diligent in reporting those offenses to the Department of Public Instruction,” Atkinson explained.

Social Media

But the classroom isn’t limited to four walls, and social media is blurring the lines between student-teacher boundaries.

High school students told WNCN that a teacher interacting with students isn’t uncommon.

“Some students think that their teachers should be in really close relationships when in reality, it’s just school and that’s it,” said one student.

Teens will also tell you that social media is where most of them live, spending hours a day on apps like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and others.

“Monitoring their usage is the main thing parents can and should be doing,” Miller said.

WNCN Investigates asked Superintendent Atkinson if teachers should “friend” students on social media.

“I believe social media should be used for improving learning for students, not necessarily making friends with students,” she said.

Disparity in policies

In 2010, a task force of educational professionals was assembled and created a licensure and ethics report titled Raising the Bar for North Carolina in which teachers outlined recommendations on how to address these very issues.

The report states:

“Thousands of new young teachers grew up with their lives displayed online via these common social networking sites. School districts should not unrealistically assume that these novice educators can understand and appreciate the complexity of virtual ethics simply because they have obtained a teaching degree. Specifically, teachers must realize that being “friends” with students online is inappropriate regardless of whether the teacher’s personal webpage is entirely “clean.” Thus, the Task Force recommends that the State Board of Education adopt a policy detailing appropriate online behavior for teachers and teacher assistants.”

Atkinson said the key is training, but currently there is no state policy for all teachers to abide by.

“We depend on our school systems to develop those policies and also enforce those policies,” Atkinson said.

However, when we asked if schools are required to create such policies:

“No it’s not a requirement at the moment but it’s considered best practice,” she said.

On May 5, WNCN Investigates asked 21 local school districts in our viewing area for a copy of their social media policy. As of May 15, only eight school districts (Johnston County, Vance County, Lee County, Person County, Cumberland County, Wake County, Wayne County and Moore County) have provided them.

You can view their policies here:

On May 21st, Durham Public Schools responded with this link to its polices.

Lee County

Lee County Schools was one of the first to put a policy into action.

“Our goal was to go above and beyond to make sure our kids and our staff were protected,” said Director of Accountability and Technology for Lee County Schools, Robert Dietrich.

Its policy prohibits teachers from directly interacting with students on any social media site, with two exceptions. First, if a teacher and a student are family members, they can still interact on social media. Second, teachers can use the school-monitored online program called Home Base.

“The purpose of the interaction should be educational-based. There’s no need to talk about other things and I think if you look at some of the previous cases that occurred, many of the cases developed with a very innocent beginning that developed over time on social media to a bigger issue,” Dietrich said.

“When you’re not face to face with a child, the boundaries are skewed and you will say things that you probably would not say face to face to face with that child, and that’s where the danger lies,” Miller said.

“You’re a teacher 24 hours a day, seven days a week and the rights of the students are protected 24 hours, a day seven days a week,” Dietrich added. “So even on your own social media you need to be real conscious of things that are stated.”

“Passing the trash”

Miller said the problem isn’t just punishing offenders; it’s keeping them out of the system.

“One of the reasons educator sexual abuse is so prolific is that this practice of ‘passing the trash’ where they allow a predator to quietly resign amidst allegations of a sexual offense and move on to another school system,” she said.

That’s a problem Atkinson said they’re working on improving. The state is creating a new online database of teachers whose license has been revoked so other school districts can keep track of teachers whose license has been denied or suspended. Atkinson said they are also working on putting the license application process online. She said this will allow them to ask more comprehensive background questions. Currently our state only asks two:

Have you ever had a certificate or license revoked or suspended by any state or other governing body? If yes, attach a statement giving full details and official documentation of the action taken.

Have you ever been convicted of a crime (excluding minor traffic violations)? If yes, you must submit court documents that indicate judgment and disposition of the case from the court of conviction, and an explanation of the incident(s).

The Task Force report says the application questions are too vague:

“For instance, the first question is unclear as to what kinds of license revocations should be reported and also fails to inquire about less severe disciplinary actions taken against a license or any pending investigations. The second question is too narrow because it only covers fully adjudicated convictions; thus, an applicant is not required to include pending charges or other relevant criminal history (e.g. arrests, indictments, plea deals, etc.).”

Next Steps?

As for social media, it’s not going away anytime soon.

The question is: are schools able to keep up with the ever-changing technology to make sure teachers don’t exploit their role?

“Most of our teachers do the right thing,” Atkinson said. “But when we find out that teachers aren’t doing the right thing, then we need to make sure they are removed from the classroom. Regardless of whether that’s one teacher or 100, we need to move as quickly as possible.”

“As parents, we’re mandated to send our kids to school, and we want our schools to be mandated to protect our children while they’re there,” Miller said.

Miller said now is the time of year to talk to your kids about sexual misconduct.

“It’s an opportunity for parents to have open conversations about the school year. For instance: What was the best part of the year? What did you enjoy learning this year? What was the worst part? Who impacted your life in a positive or negative way? What were the best things that happened at school this year? What were the worst things that happened at school this year? Going into next year, what will you do different from this year? What are your goals for next year? Do you have any concerns you would like to talk about?”

New legislation is calling for stricter punishment for certain sex crimes against students. The Protect Our Students Act would increase the criminal penalties for some sex offenses against a student committed by school personnel by making them felonies rather than misdemeanors.

You can find more resources here.

You can find a list of teachers who the North Carolina State Board of Education has taken action against here, however it is not an all-inclusive list.

Copyright WNCN 2015. All rights reserved.