I-Team: No Policy for Teacher, Student Messaging in Most Suburban NY Schools

Out of 186 districts in the state, the I-Team could not find policies governing teacher-student electronic communication in more than 80 percent of districts.

Lawyer David Engelsher said the texts started innocently -- a teacher contacting students about meeting times and class assignments. 

But over time, the tone changed. 

"Gradually, he became a little more intimate and pointed and sexual in nature," said Engelsher, who has sued former Chappaqua drama teacher Christopher Schraufnagel on behalf of four students who say Schraufnagel sexually abused them. 

No response has been filed to the lawsuit. Schraufnagel has been charged with sex crimes against three other underage students. He has pleaded not guilty. 

Experts say the behavior Schraufnagel is charged with is fairly common. In an age when so much communication happens electronically, experts say teachers can use secret communications with students over text and social media as a way to "groom" them for abuse outside the watchful eyes of their parents.

The I-Team looked into what schools are doing to protect students from teachers who cross the line, and found that in New York state, many districts have no policy. 

"In the past, teachers did not have that 'any time any place' access to children,” said Terry Abbott, the former chief of staff for the U.S. Department of Education. "But now teachers send a secret message to a student in the middle of the night, and parents don’t know anything about it." 

New Jersey passed a law in 2014 that requires school districts to have a policy dictating how teachers can –- and cannot –- contact students using texts and social media. New York City has a similar policy. But in New York state, school districts are not required to set any standards at all for electronic communication between teachers and students. 

The I-Team reviewed Board of Education policies in every school district in Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland and Putnam counties. 

Out of 186 districts, the I-Team could not find policies governing teacher-student electronic communication in more than 80 percent of districts. 

Chappaqua, where prosecutors allege Schraufnagel found his victims, is among the districts for which the I-Team could find no policy. 

Schraufnagel’s lawyer did not return calls seeking comment. Chappaqua school district officials said they could not comment on legal matters. 

Nassau District Attorney Madeline Singas said social media and electronic communication can be powerful tools in schools. But she’d like school officials to be required to maintain a separate account for communication with students – one that could easily be monitored by school officials if needed. 

"I like the idea of educators communicating with my children in ways that are approved by the school. So not on Instagram not on these private accounts but on ways that the school regulates, and that I can regulate if I need to," Singas said. 

Mineola is one district that has taken action: All electronic communication between teachers and students must take place through a district website.

"Over the last five years we’ve seen the need to really hone in on how we use social media," said Michael Nagler, the Mineola Schools Superintendent. "We’re able to see everything that goes on because it takes place on our network, we’re also able to filter the internet to keep out information that children shouldn’t be accessing."

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